Monday, August 18, 2008

Micro-loans assist families with costs of autism treatment

An interesting story by ABC News August 18 about an online micro-loan program to help families with autism treatments, but why did the ABC News Web site use this horrible photo of a kid screaming to illustrate it?

Here's the intro to the story:

Late one night in June, after reading about the second mortgages, overtime hours and general financial hardships that families of autistic children face, a Virginia woman came up with a novel approach to help.

Tori Tuncan, a mother of two, created the blog site Lend4Health, based on the concept that if insurance companies won't pay for some treatments perhaps an online patient community could.

Families looking for help can send Tuncan pictures, bios, references and the name of the treatment they want. Then she, via her site, acts as an intermediary for donors who wish to give small amounts or micro-loans to the cause through PayPal.

In the six weeks since Lend4Health's launched, Tuncan has already collected and disbursed nearly $3,180 for four families. She has also gained a volunteer staffer and job inquiries from MBAs.

But what Lend4Health's site pays for, and how the site functions, could lead it down two paths: a model to help patients pay for cutting-edge medicine or a center point for a heated debate.

"That's not a model that I've heard before," said Katherine Boas, co-creator of Barefoot MBA, a basic business education for micro-loan recipients. "She's broadening the reach of the traditional community fundraiser to micro-lending. If successful, that could be a really cool model."

Yet Tuncan needs to iron out some details. As of now, she has a site disclaimer stating that she is not responsible for repaying any loans. However, she is technically managing the intermediary Lend4Health PayPal account by combining the numerous small donations into one large disbursement plan, and manually making the payment to the families' PayPal account.

So far, lenders and loan recipients are putting their faith in Tuncan -- and each other.

"I think it's an honor system. That's just how I'm looking at it," said Petra Smit, who gave a total of $200 to several families when she stumbled upon the Lend4Health blog. "If I get it back, I'll probably contribute to another loan. At some point, you just have to have a little faith."