RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Navigating the American health care system can feel like being put through a medieval torture device, especially on the financial side. So perhaps it is fitting that the people who work at Renaissance fairs have come up with a workaround. Dan Weissmann from our Planet Money team has the story.
DAN WEISSMANN, BYLINE: About 35 miles east of Austin, Texas, I'm standing in a kind of open-air pub at the Sherwood Forest Faire. Most people here are dressed like extras from "Game Of Thrones."
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Have you gotten the chance to speak with Robin Hood yet? Robin, come forward.
WEISSMANN: Robin Hood does that thing they all do at Renaissance fairs where they pretend to be amazed by modern technology like, you know, my microphone.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Robin Hood) That's a very strange device you have there, sir.
WEISSMANN: Another newfangled invention they don't all have? Health insurance. You know, it's all fun and games till someone gets run through with a jousting lance. There's a lot that can go wrong back in the Middle Ages. Danielle Dupont performs as a washing well wench, dragging spectators into her show.
DANIELLE DUPONT: (As Washing Well Wench) Do you want to see him do something dangerous?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yeah.
DUPONT: (As Washing Well Wench) Disgusting?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yeah.
DUPONT: (As Washing Well Wench) Me, too.
WEISSMANN: Years ago, she fell off a stage and twisted her ankle. Good news. By the time she got back from the ER, her fellow performers had passed the jangly hat and raised like $2,000 for her. She was touched. But later, she found out that not everybody got the same charity. There was another family whose daughter got sick, and no one had stepped up to help them.
DUPONT: Because I was popular. I was 22. I was cute. I had a stage show. People came up with money for me. And yet this artist and family didn't get any money and had to leave. It was not fair.
WEISSMANN: So the Rennies, as they call themselves, took their informal spirit of charity and made it official. They call it RESCU Foundation, a way to raise money and give it to whoever needs it the most at Renaissance fairs around the country. The fundraisers turned out to be the easy part. Rennies have a ton of imagination, and they came up with a clever way to use it. Carol Black is one of RESCU's founders. She says they would pick up worthless items at a thrift store and then auction them off with a story.
CAROL BLACK: We auctioned off a broken wooden dish strainer as the Gutenberg paper dryer, and it went for $150 because of the story.
WEISSMANN: Giving away the money and making sure it went where it was needed most was harder. In order to make it work, they had to embrace a concept that practically defines modernity - bureaucracy. Carol says they started like any good health care organization with paperwork.
BLACK: Which is really hard for people, especially people in this type of industry.
WEISSMANN: Rennies who need help paying for health care have to fill out a form, prove they've worked at a fair as an elf or a juggler or a minstrel or a big burly dude who sells turkey legs, doesn't matter. There's a committee that reviews everything. And those that get approved can get a little money. And more importantly, they can get help navigating the health care system. Kaelyn Globig used to sell belly-dancing outfits. Now, she works as RESCU's case manager.
KAELYN GLOBIG: There are roads to take when you're uninsured, it's just that people don't know how to do it. And they won't necessarily tell you.
WEISSMANN: Kaelyn walks Rennies through the process of advocating for themselves. She teaches them the magic words to slay the health care dragon - application, charity care, financial aid. In the past five years, the RESCU Foundation says it has spent about a half a million bucks toward medical bills and gotten more than $2 million in price breaks. For NPR News, I'm Dan Weissmann in Austin, Texas.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLA KVERNBERG'S "MECHANICAL FAIR")