Who's Been the Biggest Superstar in the Fight for Health Reform?

A few foundations stand out as heroes in the saga of health reform. Remember when Atlantic Philanthropies bravely committed $27 million to help win passage of the Affordable Care Act? Or when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation upped its already big committment to Enroll America in 2013 to make sure enough people signed up for coverage before the deadline? And don't forget about the funders who've been quietly bankrolling efforts to break the will of red states resisting Medicaid expansion, as we reported a few weeks ago. 

Still, it's hard to think of a bigger superstar in the ACA fight than the California Endowment. 

You had to know it would attract attention when the foundation socked $225 million into ACA outreach, enrollment, and implementation. You had to expect that it would turn some heads when the good state of California changed its laws, in June 2013, regarding private monies supporting Medi-Cal, and the California Endowment essentially pounced, dumping $23 million in private money on 36 counties across the state.

The organization has been right there on the breaking edge of the ACA roll-out, giving bravely and unabashedly to ensure that the state with 15 percent of the nation’s uninsured residents would not be left behind by sweeping health care reform.

Last week, the CE’s attracted some serious accolades for its philanthropic brio. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy chose to honor the California Endowment with a 2014 Impact Award in the category of Large Private Foundation. And it has nothing but glowing things to say about the foundation in its announcement of the award. “In just 18 years, the California Endowment has become a top player in expanding access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities,” says the website. “NCRP commends the Endowment’s CEO, Robert K. Ross, MD, who has consistently used his voice to advocate for greater philanthropic support of nonprofit advocacy and community organizing as critical social change strategies.”

Robert K. Ross is the mind—or, more accurately, the heart—behind the California Endowment’s drive to improve the health of the less-fortunate. He grew up poor, made his way through medical school, practiced as a pediatrician for a few years, then started building his way up as a policymaker, serving on a wide array of different philanthropic and policy-related boards, including the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, Grantmakers in Health, the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, the National Marrow Donor Program, the San Diego United Way, and the Jackie Robinson YMCA.

Ross is smart, he’s ambitious, and boy, is he ever dedicated. There’s no telling how much further the California Endowment will take its Health Happens Here initiative, or what new, better ways it will find to get its programs out in the communities that need them most. In a January 2011 interview about the state's efforts to implement the ACA, Ross quoted California's Health and Human Services secretary, Diana Dooley: “We want to be the lead car.”

And so it has been, thanks in no small part to the California Endowment.