Summary: St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis TN promises not to bill families for medical care. And they don’t. But parents travel long distances to get this free care, incurring new living expenses and losing job income. Even as St. Jude amasses huge reserves from highly effective charitable fund-raising. With single payer, everyone could get needed care, usually locally. Isn’t that more charitable?
St. Jude Hoards Billions While Many of Its Families Drain Their Savings, ProPublica, November 12, 2010, by David Armstrong and Ryan Gabrielson
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital promises not to bill families. But the cost of having a child at the hospital for cancer care leaves some families so strapped for money that parents share tips on spending nights in the parking lot.
St. Jude is the largest and most highly regarded health care charity in the country. Each year, the Memphis hospital’s fundraisers send out hundreds of millions of letters, many with heart-wrenching photographs of children left bald from battling cancer.
Last year, St. Jude raised a record $2 billion. U.S. News & World Report ranked it the country’s 10th-best children’s cancer hospital, and St. Jude raised roughly as much as the nine hospitals ahead of it put together. It currently has $5.2 billion in reserves, a sum large enough to run the institution at current levels for the next four and a half years without a single additional donation.
But for many families, treatment at St. Jude does not relieve all the financial burdens they incur in getting care for their children, including housing, travel and food costs that fall outside the hospital’s strict limits, a ProPublica investigation has found.
While families may not receive a bill from St. Jude, the hospital doesn’t cover what’s usually the biggest source of financial stress associated with childhood cancer: the loss of income as parents quit or take leave from jobs to be with their child during treatment. For many families, the consequence is missed payments for cars, utilities and cellphones. Others face eviction or foreclosure because they can’t keep up with rent and mortgage payments.
A substantial portion of the cost for treatment is paid not by St. Jude but by families’ private insurance or by Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income families. About 90% of patients are insured, bringing in more than $100 million in reimbursements for treatment a year.
Parents at St. Jude have exhausted savings and retirement accounts, borrowed from family and friends or asked other charities for aid.
By Don McCanne, M.D.
Although the United States has a very well-funded health care system, its financing is highly dysfunctional. Too many are left either partially or completely out of the system. This is particularly tragic when a child with cancer is left uncovered, but at least some of us have charitable instincts. This accounts for the success of the nation’s most comprehensively funded children’s cancer hospital: St. Jude.
This is the best we have to offer those of limited means. But, based on this comprehensive report by ProPublica, it is still clearly insufficient, leaving many families destitute. Rather than relying on charity, wouldn’t it be better for the nation to join together and restructure our health care financing system so that it works for all of us, where we live? We certainly have enough funds. We merely need to establish an equitable, single payer, Medicare for All system.
Google “Charity.” The first item that comes up is St. Jude. With no increase in our current national spending, the first item that could come up in our hearts might be “a single payer national health program that covers everyone.” Wouldn’t that be much more effective in fulfilling our charitable aspirations?