October 9, 2018

He sold his Nobel Prize for $765K. Why? To cover health care costs.

Daily Briefing

    The high cost of medical care and surprise medical bills affect everyone from the uninsured, to the insured, to doctors—and even Nobel Prize winners.

    'Surprise' medical bills, explained in 5 charts

    One Nobel laureate's unusual approach to funding his care

    On Wednesday, Leon Lederman, the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, passed away in a nursing home in Idaho. Lederman is best known for contributing to the discovery of the Higgs boson subatomic particle, also known as the "God particle." But his passing, Vox reports, also calls attention to the renowned physicist's struggles with health care costs. 

    In 2011, Lederman began suffering from memory loss, and in 2015, the Associated Press reports, he sold his Nobel Prize at auction for $765,000 to cover his mounting medical bills.

    In 2015, Lederman said, "The prize has been sitting on a shelf somewhere for the last 20 years." He added, "I made a decision to sell it. It seems like a logical thing to do."

    The cost of nursing home care—such as the care Lederman was receiving—can be exceptionally high in the United States, Vox reports. On average, a private room in a nursing facility costs $7,698 a month, and while Medicare does cover a number of costs for elderly Americans, it generally doesn't cover long-term nursing care.

    Often Americans receive Medicaid coverage for their nursing home bills, but becoming eligible for Medicaid can require selling off large assets and decreasing savings in order to meet the program's income requirement, Vox reports.

    Selling a Nobel Prize is unusual—but many patients turn to nontraditional ways to pay bills

    Of course, not everyone has a Nobel Prize to sell to pay for their medical bills—but as health care costs continue to rise, Americans are increasingly trying unconventional approaches to cover their bills.

    For instance, Rob Solomon, CEO of the crowdfunding website GoFundMe, recently said that one in every three of the site's campaigns are intended to pay medical bills.

    "In the old paradigm you would give $20 to somebody who needed help," Solomon said. "In the new paradigm, you'll give $20, you'll share that, and that could turn into 10, 20, 50, or 100 people doing that. So, the $20 could turn in hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars."

    Some examples of medical campaigns that have been on GoFundMe include:

    • A three-year-old boy with a rare genetic disorder that makes him susceptible to broken bones whose relatives have raised more than $30,000 of their $40,000 goal after the boy broke a bone as his mother was putting him in a car seat;
    • A South Carolina man with prostate cancer and no insurance who has raised more than $85,000—well over his goal of $50,000; and
    • A North Carolina harpist who lost her hearing after a traumatic brain injury who has raised nearly all the money she needs for procedures not covered by her insurance.

    According to Sara Collins, an economist who studies American health care at the Commonwealth Fund, Americans are becoming less confident that they can afford health care as co-pays and deductibles rise. In a survey, the Commonwealth Fund asked working-age Americans if they felt they could pay an unexpected medical bill of $1,000 in 30 days. Nearly 50% said no.

    "So it shouldn't be surprising that people are raising funds through crowdsourcing," Collins said. "But it really should be a deep concern for policymakers and providers" (Kliff, Vox, 10/4; Ridler, Associated Press, 10/3; Haefner, Becker's Hospital CFO Report, 7/3; Zdechlik, MPR News, 7/2; AP/The Guradian, 5/27/15).

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