How the Independence Blue Cross Foundation Casts a Wide Net to Bolster Health in Pennsylvania

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We’ve been paying attention to Independence Blue Cross Foundation (IBC Foundation), a private charitable foundation affiliated with the health insurance company of the same name, because of its strong investment in creating healthier communities throughout Philadelphia and Southeastern Pennsylvania. And it’s an important funder to watch because, as we’ve covered, this region is a microcosm of the nation, with urban, suburban and rural segments.

The IBC Foundation’s work on the opioid crisis through its Supporting Treatment and Opioid Prevention (STOP) Initiative has been of particular note, especially given the failure of many foundations to step up on this critical public health issue. Close to 50,000 people died from opioids overdoses in 2017, while about 20,000 people died from overdoses of other drugs. Federal and state governments obviously play a big role in responding to this national problem, and in the fall of 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded over $1 billion in opioid-specific grants. While some insurance and pharmaceutical companies have entered the fray and Michael Bloomberg recently make a big commitment, there’s otherwise been a dearth of philanthropic focus on the opioid epidemic.

In late 2018, the IBC Foundation announced nearly $2.7 million in grant funding to local programs channeled in three directions: to the Blue Safety Net program, which funds “private, nonprofit health centers that provide access to free or affordable care in medically underserved areas,” the STOP initiative, and a new program called Community Innovation Grants. These grants will back pilot projects that pursue innovative approaches to community health challenges, and the first grantees focus on the area’s seniors.

Supporting Treatment and Opioid Prevention (STOP)

The recent STOP grants totaling $215,000 focus on community-based prevention, education and treatment relating to opioid use disorders for both individuals and families. STOP initiatives also received more than $440,000 in August 2018. The diverse programs just funded include “integrated health service to improve holistic care coordination,” education for doctors to increase the use of medication-assisted treatment, a camp for children affected by family members’ substance use, and supportive housing for individuals struggling with substance use and homelessness.

Pennsylvania has the highest overdose rate in the country, which makes this focus for the IBC Foundation an obvious choice. It will also be the first state to benefit from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ foray into the opioid emergency and will receive $10 million in related funding. As we’ve covered, many health funders are now looking upstream to address the socioeconomic determinants of health and illness. But there is a strong need to balance this focus with downstream, or “what’s-happening-right-now-in-your-backyard” philanthropy, which can address addiction to opioids, and substance use disorder relating to any drug, as health crises that deserve attention.

“Substance use disorder is a disease,” Lorina Marshall-Blake, president of the IBC Foundation, tells Inside Philanthropy. “It requires effective, evidence-based interventions, treatment and long-term management for successful recovery.” She also points out that unlike other chronic diseases, substance abuse is stigmatized and often considered a personal weakness or flaw of the user. She says the foundation’s current “Someone You Know” multimedia campaign aims to counteract this stigma, and “seeks to inspire hope in people seeking help with addiction and recovery.”

A Blue Safety Net and Community Innovation

In its latest round of funding, the Blue Safety Net program received the bulk of the IBC Foundation’s largesse —nearly $2.4 million went to 49 health centers serving more than 230,000 people. Four health centers, including two dental programs, received Blue Safety Net funding for the first time. Since 2011, the Blue Safety Net program has awarded more than $20 million to community health centers.

The new Community Innovation initiative gave two inaugural grants of $15,000.

“These grants encourage innovation in the nonprofit sector to improve community health. For this round, the trend in requests we received were new ways to improve the health of seniors in our community,” Marshall-Blake says.

One grant was for Center in the Park, to pilot the Aging Mastery Program to LGBT older adults, which is described as “a comprehensive and fun approach to positive aging [that focuses] on key aspects of health, finances, relationships, personal growth and community involvement.” The second grant went to the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC), to develop and pilot a mobile app to help seniors address issues in their homes that affect their health.

“The purpose of [PACDC’s] research project with the Drexel School of Nursing [is] to create a mobile app that home health workers, nonprofit home repair specialists, or family and friends of seniors can use to diagnose home repair or other home environment issues that could negatively impact senior health,” PACDC Health Programs and Special Projects Manager Garrett O’Dwyer tells us.

Recipients of these grants of up to $50,000 must be innovative, must attend a Community Innovation Grant Workshop with the IBC Foundation, must have matching grant funds equalling the amount of funding requested, and must be a collaboration between new or existing partners.

This focus on partnerships resonates with the IBC Foundation’s grantmaking philosophy—as Marshall-Blake has said in the past, “the success of our foundation rests on the fortitude of our partnerships.” One example of this funder’s collaborative work is its partnership with Walgreens to increase safe medication disposal programs. And in addition to the Someone You Know campaign, it is collaborating with the Justice Center for Research at Penn State University to share additional stories of addiction and recovery in an effort to reduce stigma.

The STOP program falls within the foundation’s Addressing Health Priorities focus the Community Innovation Grants and Securing the Blue Safety Net. Additionally, the IBC Foundation also funds Bolstering the Health Care Workforce, which concentrates on the nursing sector, and Building Healthier Communities, which backs community-based nonprofits addressing local health and wellness needs.

In 2017, this foundation awarded over $4.8 million in grants. The IBC Foundation accepts unsolicited grant requests from local groups, and interested nonprofits can review past grant information in the news section of its site.