Non-Traditional Methods to Pay for Cancer Care Pays Off

Patients battling cancer get financial assistance from friends, family, social media and non-profit organizations.

Part of the fight against cancer is finding a way to cover the enormous cost of treatment. Many people immediately think of direct costs, such as insurance deductibles and medications. However, indirect costs, such as those for travel and lodging, additional child care, modifications to the home or workplace, and other daily living expenses, are often substantial—and may present challenges for patients and families who are already under tremendous financial pressure.

Unfortunately, these expenses often pile up over an extended period of time due to the long-term nature of most cancer treatment, and they usually doesn’t subside once treatment is over. There are alternative ways to access established avenues of financial support, as well as fresh funding strategies made possible by social media and innovative fundraising websites.

“I think one of the most important things is, don’t ignore the bills that are coming in. Be proactive and reach out, you may be surprised at what might be offered to you,” says Erin Moaratty, chief of mission delivery at the Patient Advocate Foundation (PAF), a nonprofit that helps patients navigate the paths to financial assistance.

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Institutional, government and nonprofit organizations provide help and financial assistance to patients in need, but it does take some legwork to find and apply for these resources. However, help is available to assist patients in making the connection.

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About 21 years ago, Charlene Wilverding was diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain tumor. Initially treated with radiation, the cancer went into remission. Fifteen years later, the tumor grew back. At that time, she had chemotherapy—paid for by her husband’s insurance—that resulted in a six-year remission.

When the tumor recurred a second time, her circumstances were different. Her husband had lost his job and they were struggling financially. Now on Medicare, Wilverding was told each treatment would cost $453 out of pocket for her co-payment, and she would need numerous treatments.

“We just didn’t have the money. We were already preparing to declare bankruptcy, and the bank had already foreclosed on our house,” she says.

When Wilverding contacted PAF, her case manager researched co-payment assistance programs and located two national programs that could help her. Ultimately, Wilverding was approved for assistance through the drug’s manufacturer, which saves her $5,436 a year. “I’m glad there are people who care enough to help, otherwise I would be dead, I guess.”

Another source of assistance is a patient’s healthcare provider, who should be able to provide information on local organizations. In addition, most hospitals have a social work, home care or discharge planning department. Patients should ask about programs that provide transportation and other practical assistance. Public libraries and patient libraries at many cancer centers also are sources of information about local programs. Another source of information can be patients and caregivers at support groups who can offer referrals.

The Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition (cancerfac.org) is an association of many related organizations that help patients cope with the costs of cancer. Its website has links to 14 different organizations that provide financial assistance or information.

PAF has a Financial Aid Fund Division that provides small grants to patients who meet financial and medical criteria. PAF can also provide help with pharmaceutical co-payments in some cases through its Co-Pay Relief division. Another popular service is the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery, which utilizes volunteers to provide free transportation for patients to and from treatment.

Some people have used a community fundraiser, such as a spaghetti dinner or a fun run, as a way to raise money for individual patients. Organizations such as PAF offer helpful guidelines on putting together an effective fundraiser (Fundraising Ideas for Patients).

Patients who belong to a church, synagogue or other religious organization should let their faith community know their situation and ask if they have resources that can help. Sometimes, in addition to providing financial support, community and faith-based organizations provide volunteer services that patients would otherwise need to pay for, such as transportation, lodging, child care, home care and food.

Other patients have benefited from group efforts by rallied coworkers, neighbors and even acquaintances who share a similar hobby or profession.

When Buddy Church, a musician in Memphis, Tenn., received the diagnosis that his prostate cancer had returned, his friends and coworkers at Guitar Center were quick to organize a benefit concert to help with medical costs. Friends invited several local bands to perform at a venue where Church plays regularly, dubbing it "Buddyfest." In addition to asking for a donation to attend the concert, friends also organized a silent auction and a raffle.

Crowd-sourcing websites let patients tell their stories to a wider audience and collect donations, for a fee. Most of these sites charge a similar amount: a deduction of about 8 percent from each donation, which includes credit card fees and operating costs. Donors are recognized on the website and individuals can view fundraising progress. If patients decide to go that route, they need to be sure they understand the terms and fees associated with the site. Patients should know if there are set-up costs, processing fees or a monthly charge associated with the site.

According to Moaratty, it is important to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of using a fundraising site. She notes that, on the plus side, many sites allow patients to use the money raised in any way they like within their “medical needs,” such as medications, transportation or even insurance premiums. Another plus of using a crowd-sourcing site is that friends and family can use a credit card to give money instantly and securely.

On the downside, Moaratty says to be successful it is necessary to keep the page up to date and to send out thank you messages to donors. “For some patients, this may mean that a caregiver or family member may need to be the primary contact for the page in order to support the activity,” Moaratty says.

When soliciting donations, patients may want to offer donors updates on their treatment progress. Requesting a $100 donation for a radiation visit co-pay or $50 for transportation to therapy may help donors understand the financial obligations and be more willing to help.

Patients will need to decide if they want to keep their fundraising private or ask friends and family to share it. Moaratty notes that some people may be uncomfortable putting their personal details out in such a public way.

Eddie Franklin, a friend of Church’s who organized a GoFundMe page to help with medical costs, says it was tough to put it out there that Buddy had cancer again and needed help. “But we chose to use this as a way to honor him and show him how much we love him.”

Franklin admits that there are pros and cons to crowd-sourcing websites, but overall, he believes it’s been a huge help. The webpage has been able to raise money from Church’s friends all over the country, and at the same time, promote the community fundraiser held in his honor.

Another route is adding a donation link to a blog, Facebook page or other personal web page. Using a payment service, such as PayPal, provides a way to collect donations with no setup costs or monthly fees. For PayPal, the fee for each donation made with a debit or credit card is 2.9 percent plus $0.30 per transaction.

Some may find it worth the time to research and then choose the best option, whether it is the easiest or the most cost-efficient for their situation.

Sometimes the hardest part about getting financial help is asking for it. Patients should not be ashamed to ask for help closer to home, including community-based and charitable organizations, faith communities, friends and extended family. Remember, a patient will hardly ever get help if they don’t request it.

Elizabeth Whittington contributed to this article.

Institutional, government and nonprofit organizations provide help and financial assistance to patients in need, but it does take some legwork to find and apply for these resources.

"...we chose to use this as a way to honor him and show him how much we love him.”