A group of motivated financial planners in Massachusetts are using their skills to help people in need – cancer patients at Boston’s esteemed Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Rick Fingerman, founder and president of Financial Planning Solutions in Newton, Mass., was one of the first coaches in this pilot program. 

The program began in 2008 when a trustee at Dana-Farber, concerned about patients facing financial problems along with their health concerns, contacted the Financial Planning Association of Massachusetts in Groton, Mass. for help. The group decided to launch a pilot program to see if its members could provide pro-bono assistance to these cancer patients in their time of need.

The patients being served are often facing a myriad of personal problems along with their cancer diagnosis. Some are unable to work because of their illness. Others may have to travel for treatment, which influences their earning ability.

In other cases, patients are “inundated with bills,” Fingerman said, and some are facing job loss, while others may have spouses who are out of work. “We’ve seen the whole spectrum, everything from credit card debt to people filing for bankruptcy.” Sometimes, he said, “It seems like how much worse can you get?” for some of these people, which only increases the impetus to help.

Dana-Farber, founded in 1947, treats thousands of adults and children with cancer each year.

The group of planners at Dana-Farber call themselves “financial coaches,” Fingerman said, and can provide one-on-one advice and counseling for a range of financial needs, from credit issues to bill paying to estate planning.

Initially the pilot program only involved a few planners and three patients. The success of that pilot led the group to roll it out to a broader array of patients and develop a training program.

“We have a group of roughly sixty planners that have been trained,“ Fingerman said, though only about 35 are currently active. This group of financial planners has “helped well over 220 patients and their families,” he added.

For some planners, the cancer patients and their families are a departure from the type of high net worth and ultra high net worth clients they normally serve in their everyday practice. So in the training program the financial coaches are introduced to programs and information sources that can help people facing debts and bankruptcy, including credit counseling, heating oil assistance, prescription drugs help, and other services that the planners might not be familiar with thanks to their usually higher net worth client base.

The group also brings in credit counselors and bankruptcy attorneys to speak to the financial planning trainees directly and bring them up to speed on the types of services the cancer patients might need.

“There are things out there, and we try to pull all that together,” Fingerman said. The group has developed a Web site with information for the coaches to draw upon. For example, he said, there are programs that provide a free cell phone for someone on disability, though many cancer patients – and financial advisors -- may not know about it.

Other cancer patients may have some wealth available, but still need advice specific to their current situation, including issues related to estate planning or financing long-term care.

The financial coaches are generally approached after the patient and his or her family meet with a social worker who provides information about the planning services when discussing the patient’s situation and needs.

Fingerman says the planners in his group try to get back to any patient within three days, and are willing to go the extra mile – even meeting with people at Dana-Farber itself, while they are having their treatments.

The group also works with a pro bono bankruptcy attorney who can aid patients who are at the point of needing to declare bankruptcy. Fingerman says he has written letters on his letterhead to creditors and assistance programs on behalf of patients, who may be overwhelmed by their situation and need someone to step in and help.

“These coaches put in a lot of time,” he said, with some “spending several hours a week” devoted to helping these patients when they are most in need.

Some planners may even end up getting referrals because of their work, though that is not the primary reason why they participate, he said.

Fingerman said the financial planners who choose to participate do so for a range of reasons.  But many have been touched by cancer themselves or in their family, and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects that even a treatable diagnosis can have on a patient’s finances, he said.