MReport December 2019

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24 | M R EP O RT FEATURE "They said to their social work- ers, 'This money is not for the hos- pital. This is for the patients. And we know that you, social workers, are the ones interfacing with the patients. You're the ones hearing about their nonmedical concerns. Their concern about losing their home, their concern that their heat has been shut off, their concern that there's a repo guy in their driveway, about to take their car from them,'" Tardif recalled. Family Reach has gone from a network of three hospitals and distributing about $200,000 annually to encompassing more than 400 hospitals and an annual budget of $10 million. Tardif added that roughly 80% of all funds received go back into the program. To date, the group has helped 31,000 families and has distributed more than $15 million in grants since 2006. "What's most exciting about that growth is that we're not just financial relief anymore. We are full, wraparound financial ser- vices," Tardif said. "Because what we need to do is catch patients and families before they hit these debilitating financial barriers. We need to wipe out the shame. We need to educate them on what they can do. We need to tell them that they're not alone." Family Reach pairs families with pro-bono financial planners, who go through a Family Reach module in an effort to help them avoid bankruptcy. Tardif said Family Reach is investing a great deal of money in what they call "411 financial education," creat- ing financial handbooks, train- ing financial planners, financial navigation, and leading families into existing resources—copay assistance, drug assistance, and insurance optimization. Tardif, who has spent the past six years as CEO, pointed out that it is important for Family Reach to not be a band-aid, because, "we could never solve it that way." Family Reach has also started a center for research on cancer-re- lated financial toxicity. The center for research, Tardif said, is study- ing the patient journey and how these financial barriers impact cancer, survival rates, access rates, and families breaking up. The most vital bill that Family Reach pays, as it is often the patients' biggest non-medical bill. Tardif added that, before cancer, many patients are middle class and don't have access to food stamps or resources available to many in America. "They don't know how to ask for help. There's a lot of pride there," Tardif said, adding that income could be slashed by around $25,000 to $30,000 because of missed work or bills. The likelihood of default and foreclosures within the first three years of treatment for cancer pa- tients increases 35%. That number rises to 65% within five years. Rosie Cunningham, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Family Reach, told MReport that the or- ganization, in an effort to mitigate foreclosures, is collaborating with Wells Fargo on a pilot program that connects patients directly to HomeFree USA, a HUD-approved counseling agency. Cunningham said HomeFree USA works with patients to identify options to ensure families have "meaningful home preserva- tion options" so they can focus on cancer treatment. "The interesting thing is that a lot of groups have been surprised by the fact that there is a non- profit out there directly paying mortgages on behalf of families with cancer," Cunningham said. "It's an issue that is so drastically overlooked, and I think the more we reach different servicers and investors, the more awareness we're raising for the issue, which is obviously helping us get more partners on board." Tardif said that 42% of cancer patients spend their life savings in the first two years—which is exactly what happened to the Kirchdorfer family. "Before Mikey was diagnosed, we were financially sound. Our mortgage was up to date. We had a small nest egg. Both Ida and I had good jobs," said Steve Kirchdorfer of Massachusets, whose son, Mikey, battled cancer. "Once Mikey was diagnosed, Ida left her job as a nurse, and I worked basically from the Children's Hospital. We quickly exhausted our savings and fell behind on our mortgage." The Family received assistance multiple times over the three-year treatment period. "Family Reach not only pro- vided us financial relief but, more importantly, made us feel like we had a partner by our side to help us get through this awful time," he said. "The fight against cancer is not a one-on-one battle," Kirchdorfer said. "It truly takes an army, and without the support of Family Reach and its supporters, our battle would have been a much tougher one." Cunningham said that Family Reach has been "on the front lines" with these families for more than two decades, and "we've met too many families along the way who become homeless because of cancer treatment." "We've met the single mothers who are living on a park bench while their child is in treatment in the hospital. We've helped parents get out of homeless shelters while their child is in treatment in the hospital," Cunningham said. "To have the chance to get ahead of this problem and give these families that peace of mind that their home is safe, their home is stable, and they can just be there for their child and focus on getting well, it's just such an incredible opportunity to provide real meaningful relief for these families that extends so much beyond paying one mortgage payment." MIKE ALBANESE is a reporter for DS News and MReport. He is a University of Alabama graduate with a degree in journalism and a minor in communications. He has worked for publications—both print and online—covering numerous beats. A Connecticut native, Albanese currently resides in Lewisville. "We've met too many families along the way who become homeless because of cancer treatment." —Rosie Cunningham, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Family Reach

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