Online Autism Fund: Godsend or Money Pit?

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.

New Concept, Uncertain Grounds

"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."

Smit is the mother of a 10-year-old autistic boy who, she says, benefited greatly from diet changes based on diagnostics allergy tests that were not covered by her insurance.

"When I went to check it out, some of these stories of these kids, I recognized some of my own story, or my own son's story," Smit said. "It's just my way of paying it forward a little bit. I certainly had help along the way."

Tuncan knows she can't rely on such goodwill all the time.

"The big issue is that what if somebody doesn't pay you back," said Tuncan, who added that she e-mails the disclaimer to everyone who loans money. She might try to turn the Lend4Health blog into a nonprofit with more regulation and legal protection, she said.

In the meantime, Tuncan says she hopes lenders use common sense. "I suggest that people only loan an amount they can handle not getting paid back," she said.

"You have the option of just putting your 20 bucks back in your wallet or you can put it back to another family -- eventually it could turn into a pool of money to keep going," Tuncan said.

Why such a pool of money would be necessary may belie one of the sites other potential pitfalls, or breakthroughs. Many of the treatments that Tuncan hopes will be paid for with Lend4Health are controversial.

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