Health foundation grants make impact

Saturday, October 4, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- More than a year ago, the Southeast Missouri Health Network had on its wish list two projects that aimed to deliver health-care services that its clients might not otherwise receive.

One proposal was to develop a video conference system through which patients at the network's Bootheel clinics could consult with medical specialists in other cities. The second idea was to create a mobile unit that could reach out to the community and provide basic dental screenings for children.

However, the federally funded, New Madrid-based agency lacked the budget for such undertakings. The projects remained mere dreams, said Cheryl White, the network's interim chief executive officer, until the Missouri Foundation for Health delivered nearly $320,000 in grants for the agency to pursue those and other initiatives.

"The Missouri Foundation for Health has made two possibilities that were long-term goals for us into short-term achievements," White said.

The foundation was created following the attempted conversion of the nonprofit Blue Cross Blue Shield of Missouri into the for-profit RightCHOICE Managed Care Inc. in the mid-1990s.

Attorney General Jay Nixon sued on the grounds that the public, not private individuals, should benefit from the assets Blue Cross Blue Shield accrued during its decades as a charitable organization. The resulting legal settlement awarded 80 percent of RightCHOICE stock to the foundation, which has since divested itself of the holdings.

The proceeds were used to create an endowment so the foundation could provide grants to support health-care agencies and services that target uninsured and underinsured Missourians in St. Louis city and the 84 counties formerly served by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The foundation's 15-member governing board began issuing grants in August 2002.

According to its recently released financial report for calendar 2002, the foundation awarded $9.7 million in grants, $6.8 million of which was distributed during that year.

For 2003, the foundation's first full year providing grants, at least $35 million is expected to be awarded. The goal is to annually disburse 5 percent of the endowment.

At the end of 2002, the foundation suffered $81 million in investment losses, leaving the endowment with $846.3 million. However, foundation spokeswoman Heather McClurg said that due to an improved stock market in 2003, its assets are currently hovering around $1 billion.

"That is really good news to the community because the more money we have, the more money we can give away," McClurg said.

Although the foundation spent nearly as much on administration and investment management in 2002 -- $5.3 million -- as it distributed in grants, McClurg said that amount included substantial startup costs.

Sharing the wealth

Of the grants awarded in 2002, including amounts not actually spent until this year, 51 percent was given to rural agencies, with the remainder funding services in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

At least $1.4 million went to agencies serving Southeast Missouri. The funded efforts included teen pregnancy prevention programs in Dunklin and Pemiscot counties' high schools, new dental equipment and additional staff at the Cross Trails Medical Center in Cape Girardeau and an outreach program to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

The foundation touts the Southeast Missouri Health Network's mobile dental screening unit as one of its success stories.

The network has long provided dental services through its clinics in Kennett and New Madrid, and another is slated to open in Sikeston in two weeks. However, White, the agency's CEO, said there are a significant number of Bootheel residents, especially children, who have trouble accessing dental care.

With the mobile unit, a dental hygienist frequently travels to schools, churches and other places in the community to perform dental screenings and teach children how to best take care of their teeth.

"Our goal is that by 2004, 80 percent of the people we see start practicing good dental hygiene and get regular exams," White said.

The network eventually hopes to add a dentist to the traveling unit, which includes a Spanish-speaking member as part of efforts to reach out to migrant Hispanic farm families who are a growing component of the Bootheel population.

Nixon said the foundation is fulfilling the purpose for which it was created, and has maintained a solid geographical balance with its grant awards, avoiding the trap of focusing on the St. Louis area.

While its efforts in 2003 will provide a more definitive evaluation of its community impact, Nixon said he is impressed with what the foundation has accomplished to date.

"This is a chance to make a real and lasting difference because of the ability of not-for-profits to help in ways government can't," Nixon said.

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