In 2010, I got a call that advocates only dream about. The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving had a dedicated fund to pay medical bills for Hartford area residents who couldn’t afford them, and they wanted my help directing the money to people most in need. The good news is that the Brainard Fund still exists and it’s making a meaningful difference in the lives of Hartford residents. The US Census estimates that 10.1% of Hartford city residents and 6% of county residents are uninsured. The fund has been especially important to struggling families during the COVID pandemic and recession.
Newton Case Brainard was born in Hartford the day after Christmas in 1880. He was a successful banker, historian, community leader, and mayor of Hartford from 1920 to 1922. He was President of the Connecticut Historical Society, was instrumental in saving the Old State House, and in developing Hartford’s municipal airport, which bears his name.
According to the Foundation’s archives, in the 1950s Newton and his wife Elsie “had a number of friends of moderate means who in later life were stricken with a severe illness or required a major operation, which they were not able to finance without selling their car, or mortgaging or selling their house.” They “recognized that few funds were available to help those of modest incomes who were unable to meet sudden and substantial medical expenses.”
In 1957 the couple dedicated $2 million to a fund “to be used for the care and support of persons suffering from so-called incurable diseases, or of aged and infirm persons, or both, either by assistance given directly to the beneficiary or beneficiaries, or indirectly through the appropriate established agency or agencies.” Even making regular payments for medical bills, the fund has grown to over $17 million today.
The Brainards may not have foreseen the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. But having lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, they wouldn’t be surprised by COVID. Under the Foundation’s stewardship, their Fund has adapted to the changing healthcare landscape. With the help of an advisory committee I am honored to serve on, the Fund has adjusted grant amounts, eligibility, and allowed services to cover rising healthcare prices and ensure the funds don’t replicate public programs. Similar funds created by other wealthy families around the same time were eventually donated away to hospitals and clinics. But the Brainard Fund remains true to the Brainards’ vision – paying individual patients’ medical bills.
A recent case involved a widower whose wife died after a long struggle with an aggressive cancer. They spent all their savings on her care at an out-of-state hospital but still had a remaining bill of $18,000. The Fund was able to cover the balance.
The Foundation’s staff maintain close relationships with area healthcare providers to help identify eligible patients struggling to pay bills that aren’t covered by insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid. The fund expects patients to pay what they reasonably can, and then fills in the gaps.While the Foundation can only pay medical bills submitted by nonprofit providers, UConn Health Center has agreed to pay bills for patients seen outside their system. The fund not only benefits patients, but also Hartford-area health systems by reducing uncompensated care costs.
Between 2018 and 2021, the Brainard Fund paid $1,832,516 in medical bills for 126 Hartford area residents. Last year, the Brainard Fund received a large increase in applications, likely because of the COVID pandemic and the resulting recession that caused many Hartford residents to lose employer health benefits. In response to the need, total grants from the Fund increased 41%. So far this year they are seeing the same high level of need and expect to spend more than in the past.
Patients with medical debt they can’t pay should contact their healthcare provider or billing representative to see if they are eligible. The healthcare representative can work with them to apply to the Foundation for help. Providers interested in helping their patients in financial distress and cover some uncompensated care costs should connect with the Foundation.
Greater Hartford and its health system are very fortunate to have the Brainard Fund. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Brainards for their dedication to community and to the Foundation’s stewardship of their legacy benefitting patients now and long into the future.
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