New front in disease fight: Medical Fundraisers

Clark County families turn to community, websites for help as medical bills mount

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Caitlyn Lippolis' story:After horrible news, an optimistic attitude

Ryan Woods' story:Events, websites aid local cancer victim

Even with insurance, costs add up quickly:Medical bills lead many families to file for bankruptcy

photoCaitlyn Lippolis, 12, takes her first steps with a prosthetic leg at Artisan Technologies in Tualatin, Ore., last month. Warren Mays, left, is president of Artisan Technologies, which constructed the leg. Caitlyn's family has struggled to pay their bills since the girl was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer that resulted in an amputated leg.

(/The Columbian)

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photoCourtesy of Oberst family Steve Oberst of Battle Ground, who is fighting prostate cancer, kisses his wife, Susan. Family and friends have held fundraisers to help pay his medical bills as he receives out-of-state treatment. The couple's four sons are in the background.

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photoProvided photo The Woods family of Vancouver, from left, Jessica, India, Ryan and (front) Jones pose for a photo. Community fundraisers have raised thousands of dollars to help the family pay Ryan's medical bills. Ryan has terminal cancer.

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photoProvided photo Steve Oberst of Battle Ground waits for a surgical procedure to begin on June 18 at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America near Chicago. Oberst's friends and family have held fundraisers to help his family pay his medical and related expenses.

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Two days after Caitlyn Lippolis' 12th birthday she received news that changed her life, and the lives of those around her, forever.

The bubbly, active pre-teen was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer.

The eight months since have been a whirlwind.

Caitlyn and her dad, Robert Lippolis, commuted weekly from their Grants Pass, Ore., home to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland for MRIs, biopsies, X-rays and chest scans. Caitlyn began chemotherapy to combat the growing tumor that ballooned her knee to the size of a football.

After three months of driving back-and-forth, the family packed up and moved to Vancouver in June to be closer to Caitlyn's medical providers. A couple weeks later, surgeons amputated Caitlyn's right leg, leaving her with a stump beginning four inches above her knee.

She's now in the middle of an aggressive 26-week course of chemotherapy, and last month received her prosthetic leg. After the chemo treatment wraps up in early December, Caitlyn can begin physical therapy and the arduous task of learning to walk again.

As Caitlyn faces the reality of life as a tween with a prosthetic leg, Robert and his wife, Chrissy, face the reality of mounting bills and little means to pay them.

In Grants Pass, Robert ran his own business building racing engines and restoring classic cars. He shut down his business and sold most of his equipment in order to move the family north. The $12,000 the family had in savings -- the money they planned to use as a down payment for the house they were preparing to buy -- has been wiped out in order to pay rent, utilities and living expenses in their new city, along with medications and supplements not covered by Caitlyn's state-provided health insurance.

Caitlyn's ongoing treatment means she and Robert are in the hospital two weeks out of the month. When they're not there, they are running back and forth to Portland for various medical appointments. While Robert takes care of Caitlyn, Chrissy runs the house and cares for 1-year-old Lindsay and 9-year-old Ali.

"It's been near impossible to find a job that will accept a schedule like this," Robert said.

Without any income, the Lippolises have found themselves in a situation not uncommon among families devastated by cancer diagnoses, catastrophic injuries and other medical crises. A situation that, for some, leads to bankruptcy.

In 2007, more than 822,000 Americans filed bankruptcy, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. More than 60 percent of all bankruptcies that year were due to medical expenses, according a study in the American Journal of Medicine.

After exhausting their own resources, many struggling families, like the Lippolises, turn to friends, family members and their communities for help. They set up bank accounts and solicit donations. They host dinners, auctions and benefit concerts to bring in a few bucks. They use social media and websites to raise money.

While the fundraisers can bring in thousands of dollars, it's not always enough to keep families out of financial trouble.

The Oberst family

Most of the people who filed medical-related bankruptcy in 2007 were well-educated, owned homes and had middle-class occupations, according to the American Journal of Medicine study. Three-quarters had health insurance.

The Oberst family of Battle Ground fits that profile.

In February, Steve Oberst was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer. By the time it was detected, the cancer had already metastasized and spread. Unsatisfied with the treatment proposed by local physicians, Steve and his wife, Susan, sought a second opinion at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America near Chicago. The team there created a plan of attack that included high-dose radiation, hormone therapy and chemotherapy.

At the forefront of the Obersts' minds, however, was whether they could afford to seek out-of-state treatment.

In the summer of 2009, Steve was laid off from his job as a union carpenter and foreman; his first layoff in nine years. Since then, Steve has worked on and off. Without a steady second income, the Obersts struggled to save money.

Two weeks before his diagnosis, Steve started a new job. But the cancer diagnosis has made working impossible.

"A friend said, 'Don't debate it. You worry about Steve, and I'll worry about how we'll raise this money,'" Susan recalled.

Steve and Susan flew to the cancer treatment center May 16. For three months, Steve underwent treatment in Illinois. They returned home in early August, but Steve is continuing his hormone therapy at home and must return to Illinois for chemotherapy treatment.

The Obersts' medical insurance, which they receive through Steve's union, covers his care in Illinois. The center covers most of the plane ticket costs. What insurance doesn't cover, however, is the $45-a-night stay at the center's guest quarters. The Obersts footed the $315-a-week bill for the three-month stay.

Insurance also doesn't cover medication co-pays or the cost of supplements prescribed to help with side effects and, in some cases, in lieu of more medications. One trip to the pharmacy cost the family $950, Susan said.

Despite having health insurance, the Obersts have already accumulated more than $20,000 in unpaid medical bills. And now, the family is facing bankruptcy.

For the Obersts and Lippolises, the debt is making the families do something they never wanted to do: ask for help.

Fundraising events

When family friends learned about the Obersts' growing medical bills, they sprung into action.

They held a spaghetti feed and live auction that netted about $4,000 for the family. An evening of Texas Hold 'em, bunco and live music raised about $2,500. An online account has raised another $3,600. And one friend donated $2,300 -- the proceeds from selling his purebred golden retriever puppies.

While the fundraisers didn't cover all of the Obersts' bills, they did bring the family some relief.

"I slept at night," Susan Oberst said. "It's sad that that is what you rely on. You don't want to feel like you have to rely on that, but you're helpless."

The Lippolises are also turning to their new community for help. A family friend is in the early stages of planning a fundraising event, and the family has set up a bank account at iQ Credit Union to accept donations.

Local credit unions have for years hosted bank accounts set up on behalf of people struggling to pay medical bills and related expenses. While the number of donation accounts doesn't seem to be increasing, the fundraisers do appear to becoming more visible, thanks to social media, said Danette LaChapelle, chief communication officer at iQ Credit Union.

"I just think we hear about it more because through social media it's so much easier to find out about what's going on in people's lives," she said.

Turning to social media

Another way social media and the Internet are raising the profile of community fundraising efforts is through "crowdfunding" sites. The sites allow people to create Web pages about their causes and collect donations.

Founders of two popular crowdfunding sites -- GiveForward and YouCaring -- created their sites to serve various projects. Both quickly realized the popularity of online medical fundraisers.

GiveForward launched in 2008. A year later, the business shifted its focus to fundraising for medical services.

"We've just seen incredible growth since then," said Cate Conroy, director of marketing for GiveForward.

In 2011, the site hosted about 6,500 fundraisers. This year, through October, the site hosted 14,000 fundraising drives. During that same time period, donations have increased by 2.4 percent. GiveForward medical fundraisers bring in, on average, $4,000, according to the company.

Medical drives quickly dominated YouCaring's site after its launch last November.

"Medical fundraisers are, by far, the largest use," said Brock Ketcher, founder of YouCaring.

The site currently has about 5,800 listed fundraisers. Of those, 3,800 are for medical issues. So far this year, medical-related campaigns on the site have raised more than $5 million.

"It's an unusual way to raise money, that's for sure," Ketcher said. "But I definitely think it's opened a whole new segment for helping people."

Uncertain future

Despite the help from the community, the future is full of uncertainty for the Obersts and Lippolises.

The Lippolis family will continue to put off their dream of owning a home, and Robert will pick up work when he can to help make ends meet.

"We're going to make it," Robert said. "It's just tough."

Steve Oberst will continue his treatment and awaits a prognosis due in January. Even as they grapple with mounting medical bills, the Obersts wouldn't change their decision to seek treatment out of state.

"He's only 48 years old. I can't lose him," Susan said. "We've been married 25 years. We have four kids."

"I'd live under a tree just to know I could have him," she added.


Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.