A desperate Michigan woman turned to GoFundMe to help pay for her heart transplant

The story of a Michigan woman forced to crowd-fund her heart transplant medication is sparking outrage, but her plight is far more common than people may realize.

GoFundMe donors have already pledged more than $28,000 for Hedda Martin by Monday, days after a Spectrum Health heart transplant committee rejected the 60-year-old woman’s transplant application because she needed a “more secure financial plan” to pay for her post-transplant anti-rejection drugs.

The committee suggested “a fundraising effort of $10,000,” according to a rejection letter that’s gone viral. The sum is meant to pay for the 20% co-pay to afford two years of the drugs, the GoFundMe campaign noted.

Martin’s son, Alex Britt, set up the fund, writing that because his mom “needs the funding right away to qualify being put on the transplant list and not lose valuable time, we are asking for anything you may be able to afford.”

The dog walker and pet sitter is coping with congestive heart failure after chemotherapy more than a decade earlier for breast cancer, her son wrote. Martin “has at least 20 more years of life in her…if she can get a new heart,” Alex wrote.

In a lengthy statement, Spectrum Health, a medical provider with 14 hospitals, said it couldn’t comment on particular patients, due to their privacy rights.

“While it is always upsetting when we cannot provide a transplant, we have an obligation to ensure that transplants are successful and that donor organs will remain viable,” the medical provider said. “We thoughtfully review candidates for heart and lung transplant procedures with care and compassion, and these are often highly complex, difficult decisions.”

Spectrum said its focus was aimed at patients’ well-being but “the fact is that transplants require lifelong care and immunosuppression drugs, and therefore costs are sometimes a regrettable and unavoidable factor in the decision making process.”

Martin’s story caught media attention, boosted by a tweet with the denial letter from U.S. House of Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York. “Insurance groups are recommending GoFundMe as official policy — where customers can die if they can’t raise the goal in time — but sure, single payer healthcare is unreasonable,” she wrote.

The stakes might be exceptionally high for Martin, but she’s not alone in getting online donations for her health-related bills. Medical campaigns are a major part of the fundraising that happens at GoFundMe, with one-third of the site’s worldwide donations going to medical costs.

More than 250,000 medical campaigns across the globe have raised $650 million a year on average, the site says, which excludes other crowdfunding portfolio business like YouCaring and CrowdRise. That’s compared to approximately $330 million raised for GoFundMe memorial campaigns yearly on average, $230 million for emergency campaigns and $70 million for education funds.

“Every day on GoFundMe, we see the challenges Americans face with the rising costs of a broken health-care system. Their stories are often heartbreaking, and we strive to be a place where people in need can find help and support,” a spokesperson for the website told MarketWatch.

“Despite the progress made with the Affordable Care Act, there are ever-widening gaps in coverage for treatment, prescriptions, and related health care costs, even for patients with insurance,” the spokesperson said, adding the needed expenses could be for anything from lost income to payment for new therapies.

The site emphasized it was not looking to be “a substitute social safety net” because “a crowdfunding platform can not and should not be a solution to complex, systemic problems that must be solved with meaningful public policy.”

Affordable, wide-ranging health care was a right that had to fought for, GoFundMe said. “In the meantime, we will continue to work hard to provide a place where Americans can help one another during times of need.”

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The spending comes as health costs climb for both employer-sponsored premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. In fact, medical costs accounted for 17.4% of gross domestic product in 2016, an all-time high, according to a report released last month from the Economic Policy Institute.

Health care emerged as the most important issue in the recent midterm elections, according to several surveys. In fact, other studies say medical bills are the top cause of personal bankruptcies.

Relying on the internet for help with medical bills has its risks. The patient must hope that they receive enough money and it arrives in time. Patients who require organ transplants, for example, must be sick enough to qualify for the transplant list and, under such circumstances, they may only have months or even weeks to find the required finances and a donor.

Meanwhile, kind-hearted donors also need to be sure their money is being properly used. While there’s no suggestion of impropriety with Martin, it does happen.

In one recent high-profile case, New Jersey prosecutors recently filed charges against a couple and a homeless man who allegedly scammed donors into giving more than $400,000 on a GoFundMe campaign. The campaign was supposedly to help the homeless man who spared his last $20 bucks to help a stranded drive. GoFundMe said it would reimburse donors snared in that case.

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Andrew Keshner is a personal finance reporter based in New York.

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