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Commentary: GoFundMe is no substitute for a good health care system

In covering the recent death of Austin musician George Reiff, the American-Statesman reported on the success of the crowdsourcing effort to help pay for his medical expenses.

When Reiff was diagnosed with stage IV cancer last summer, his family set up a GoFundMe account to help with the enormous financial costs of chemotherapy, radiation and other treatment, even though he had health insurance. It quickly raised almost $150,000 from more than 1,200 contributors.

This was remarkable — and a testament to how loved and respected Reiff was. However, it is also a reminder that the American medical system is broken. We have accepted that the bad luck of a hard diagnosis will mean financial catastrophe for most of us. Though crowdsourcing sites offer ways to support those who need help in the short term, what we need is a system that ensures that anyone can get the care they require.

OBITUARY: George Reiff, one of Austin’s best musicians, dies of cancer at 56.

George Reiff was my friend, so I gave to his fund willingly. It was the least I could do to honor his generosity. When I moved to Austin in 1999, he showed me hidden gems of the city he had called home for many years. We ate nopal enchiladas at El Azteca and drank Shiner at Deep Eddy Cabaret. We eavesdropped on political gossip at the Cloak Room. We drove east of town to pick Christmas trees. I considered him my tour guide to cool.

But as I sat in stunned grief at the news of his death and read published tributes, I began to think about what it means that part of his story now is that 1,200 people helped fund his treatment. That he was admired and adored? Yes. That some part of the stress of his care was lifted from him and his family? Yes. But also that we’ve gotten used to a world where good medical care is out of reach for all but the most financially fortunate. Businesses like GoFundMe, with fees totaling about 8 percent of all donations, capitalize on that fact.

Newly approved cancer drugs cost an average of $10,000 a month, with some therapies costing $30,000 a month or more, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Even for a patient with health insurance, drug co-pays could run $24,000 to $36,000 a year, plus insurance premiums. It’s no wonder that bankruptcy rates for cancer patients are almost twice as high as those for the general population.

The reality is that most Americans are not prepared for even small emergencies, never mind a serious medical diagnosis. The Federal Reserve reports that 46 percent of adults say they could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 or that they would cover it by selling something or borrowing money. Of those who had a major unexpected medical expense in the prior year, 46 percent say they currently owe debt from that expense.

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Reiff was as prepared as most of us could expect to be. He was insured. He had a long career in the music industry that saw him touring with icons like Joe Walsh and producing albums for new and established acts. He owned a home. He had a close circle of friends and family. His diagnosis was just plain old bad luck — the same bad luck that could come to any of us.

As U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz consider the Senate’s iteration of the American Health Care Act, they should remember that nearly half of Americans can’t come up with $400 for an emergency. They should be certain that no one currently insured through the ACA loses coverage. And they should be thinking about how to move beyond Obamacare into something even more fair, like a health care system that controls costs so that an unexpected diagnosis doesn’t mean financial ruin for most Americans.

Would I give money to help George Reiff again? In a New York minute, as they say. But in matters of life and death, we shouldn’t have to have 1,200 friends who can open their wallets. Americans deserve a medical system that’s aligned with those in the majority of developed countries — one where costs are contained and health care is recognized as a basic human right. In that system, we can still support the people we love by giving them care, meals, rides to the doctor and our best wishes and prayers.

Griffith is an Austin-based writer.

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