Two local funds help pay medical bills for catastrophic illnesses


Over many years, two small organizations, one in East Hampton, and the other in Montauk, have been quietly paying the medical expenses of people who have catastrophic illnesses.

One of the organizations, The Catastrophic Illness Fund of East Hampton, was started in 1985 and its first candidate was a woman who needed a kidney transplant. The other organization, the East End Foundation, was started 11 years ago by Roger Feit and Dorothy Peale, both of Montauk, and one of its first cases was a six-month-old child with cancer.

Neither organization has ever sought publicity or done any marketing, and both have functioned mostly by word of mouth. Their main goals are to help cover the expenses of people with serious, life-threatening diseases who don’t have health care insurance or whose health insurance doesn’t cover all their bills.

“Our mission is to assist in paying medical bills for people who have catastrophic illnesses. It devastates people when they get these bills,” said Mae Harden, executive director of the Catastrophic Illness Fund. Ms. Harden described catastrophic illness as any serious illness that threatens life, requires hospitalization, and generates “exorbitant” bills.

The fund, which has developed strictly from private donations, was started by Rudy DeSanti, former owner of Dreesen’s Market. He was quickly joined by former East Hampton resident Richard Hoadley and Alex Walter, a local retired businessman, and later by Phil Tutino, who now serves as treasurer. Mr. Desanti, Mr. Walter and Mr. Tutino make up the current board.

Mr. DeSanti and Ms. Harden were the featured speakers at the Rotary Club of East Hampton’s January 4 meeting. Ms. Harden said they were invited to speak at the Rotary Club and have not actively sought attention from the press or public in the last several years. “We figured we’d just let it ride until word gets around,” Ms. Harden said. “We really weren’t soliciting attention until the Rotary Club invited us to speak.”

The East End Foundation today is mostly managed by Mr. Feit, who is a co-owner of Treewise, an organic plant health care company. He gets help from Ms. Peale and Alice Houseknecht, owner of East Deck Motel in Ditch Plains, and “hundreds” of volunteers, he said.

“I’ve become known as the go-to guy when people have been ill or they’ve had illness in the family,” he said. “We’ve helped a lot of people who have had bleak futures with the loving, caring energy that comes from our volunteers,” he said. The baby the East End Fund helped several years back, Will Hamilton, son of Tom and Denise Hamilton of Montauk, is now 9 years old and healthy, he said.

Generally, the way funds are raised for serious medical conditions in the East Hampton area is through individual private donation efforts, special benefits and fund-raisers. One recent example is the case of Suzanne Rigg, a nurse-practioner with Hampton Medical Care in East Hampton who suffered a stroke in September and whose benefit fund has been organized by the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation. (Checks should be made out to the Healthcare Foundation and sent to the foundation at 200 Pantigo Road, Suite M, East Hampton, N.Y. 11937)

A benefit for East Hampton resident Vaness Wirth was held at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett on Friday, November 28. Ms. Wirth is a 1998 East Hampton High School graduate and was diagnosed this past August with non-Hodgkins lymphoma Stage 4. (Donations may be be sent to The Vanessa M. Wirth Trust, P.O. Box 4001, East Hampton, New York, 11937.)

The Catastrophic Fund doesn’t do fund-raisers, but donates out of its general fund to individuals.

People with qualifying illnesses are asked to submit an application.

“We have a two-page application with benign questions such as what are you having a problem paying for, who referred you, and how much do you need. People are very honest about it,” said Ms. Harden, who was a nurse at Southampton Hospital for 30 years until her retirement in 1998. She became executive director of the fund in 1998. Since then, the organization has helped about 25 people, she said.

“People are often embarrassed to ask for help, but I tell them the money is there to help them,” she said.

Once the application is in, Ms. Harden investigates the bills.

“I ask for a copy of the bills and then I call the doctor or the insurance company. If someone is behind in payments, I ask them to please not put them in arrears, that the bill or part of it may be paid,” she continued.

Once she has investigated the bills, she turns it over to the board to make a decision on whether they will cover the whole bill or just part of it.

Over the years, the organization has helped in ways large and small.

In one case, a young man confined to a wheelchair with Lou Gehrig’s Disease needed a shower chair. The fund covered that.

Another case involved a woman who had breast cancer, but the doctor wouldn’t start the chemotherapy without her having her teeth fixed. Her Medicare would cover the chemotherapy but not the dental work. Ms. Harden got to work and found a dentist who reduced the charge for the dental work by $2,000 and the fund donated the rest.

Mr. DeSanti declined to say how much money is in the fund, but Ms. Harden said when she first became executive director, she sent out donation request letters to 500 people and quickly amassed $52,000. Since she has been in charge, the fund has allocated about $20,000, she said.

The East End Foundation has about $20,000 in its coffers, some of it already earmarked for families, Mr. Feit said. The organization also does fund-raisers for families and every August holds a surfing contest on Ditch Plains beach to raise money for the general fund.

“We usually have to have an event to raise funds for people,” Mr. Feit said. “But whether it’s specific benefits or general fund-raising, every dime goes to them. We don’t take any money.”

The East End Foundation also has an interview process for prospective families in need of funds.

“Basically all I do is talk to them and ask them how things are financially and whether the bills have piled up. We want to know if insurance is covering any of the bills and whether they have family to help them out.”

The foundation has helped about 30 families since it started, mostly in Montauk, but in East Hampton and Southampton as well, Mr. Feit said.

Two recent cases the East End Fund has held dinner fund-raisers for are the Dave Franzetti family and the Tucker Geary family, both of Montauk.

Mr. Franzetti, who died January 31, had a brain disease and his dinner was held during the summer at the Second House Tavern in Montauk, Mr. Feit said. He and his wife, Nora, have two daughters. Mr. Tucker, a local carpenter, has rectal cancer and a dinner was held for him at the Inlet Restaurant in Montauk on November 30. He has a wife, Catherine, and two grown children in college.

Once a family has been helped, Mr. Feit asks them to volunteer for the organization’s upcoming fund-raisers.

“The way we have it set up is that the recipient becomes part of our staff. We want them to help sell tickets and help out the organization,” he said.

The East End Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization, and all donations are tax-deductible. Checks may be made out to the East End Foundation and sent to P.O. Box 1746, Montauk, N.Y., 11954.

Mr. DeSanti said the Catastrophic Illness Fund calls itself a non-profit, but does not have 501c3 corporation non-profit status, so donations are currently not tax deductible. Because of the costs of getting 501c3 status, the Mr. DeSanti said, the organization has no plans to seek such status in the near future.

If anyone believes they are eligible for the fund or wishes to contribute, they should contact Ms. Harden at 329-3418.

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