What's So Interesting About Atlantic's Huge Health Care Give

It's a fascinating time in health care philanthropy, as funders ramp up a sprawling and ambitious push to improve the most dysfunctional health care system in the world. 

Over the past year, we've covered the pivot of top health care funders away from a historic battle to expand accessnow largely won with implementation of Obamacareto an even tougher challenge: reining in costs while improving care and, more daunting still, boosting the overall health of Americans.

Last week, we wrote about the Kresge foundation's new healthcare strategy, which focuses on creating "healthy places" and  fostering more collaboration in communities to advance preventative health care. Of course, we've written regularly about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's multi-faceted push to create a "culture of health" in the United States. 

The Atlantic Philanthropies is another top foundation pushing for reforms, and it just made a massive five-year $14.8 million grant to the Boston-based nonprofit, Community Catalyst, with the goal of empowering consumers—especially among vulnerable populations—to transform health care systems in ways that improve care, expand access, and reduce costs. 

Atlantic may be best known in the health care world for its heavy spending to ensure passage, and then implementation, of the Affordable Care Act. But last year, when we spoke to Atlantic's CEO, Christopher Oechsli, he sketched out how the foundation was pushing a broad strategy to advance "health equity" as part of its spend-down endgame. 

We wrote in that piece:

One keen interest of the foundation is building a cadre of health care professionals who are drawn from the community, and it's learned a lot about this area from its funding of school-based health clinics. Here again, the foundation is poised to make some major grants. Oechsli says the foundation will give big money to at least one champion organization in the healthcare field, and that significant funding for human capital is also likely. 

Community Catalyst is the lucky champion organization. 

The group has long been a partner to Atlantic, receiving $5 million from the foundation since 2009. Community Catalyst got Atlantic money for its work to advance the ACA, but it also got funds to improve the delivery of health care by promoting "coordinated, patient-centred care" and also seeking to empower older adults in navigating government healthcare systems. 

Community Catalyst has been around since 1998, and sees itself as building "a consumer health advocacy movement from the ground up, working in 40 states to ensure consumers have an organized voice and a seat at the table where health decisions are made."

Among other things, the new Atlantic money will go toward the creation of the Center for Consumer and Community Engagement, which will be "devoted to teaching, learning, and exporting knowledge about transforming the health system."

The center will be a new hub for collaboration in health care consumer advocacy, creating a kind of "command central" for health care advocacy that focuses on diverse vulnerable populations such as children, frail seniors, people with disabilities, and other marginalized constituencies. The aim is to help these groups advocate more effectively in a collective way.   

The grant money will also be spent on Community Catalyst's own research and evaluationdeveloping the evidence base for why consumer and community engagement are critical to an effective health care system. This kind of research actually can double as a form of advocacy, since it brings more attention to the question of why policymakers are currently not using consumer engagement enough, and highlights ways to create a more inclusive system.

The new money will also support a number of Community Catalyst's ongoing efforts, including Voices for Better Health, which advocates for Medicare and Medicaid members (generally, elderly and disabled folks). A portion of this huge grant will also go to Community Catalyst’s investments in state advocacy and sub-granting to states when an aggressive consumer advocacy campaign is needed. Another portion will support the Community Catalyst Action Fund (CCAF), a 501(c)(4) that does much of the organization's advocacy in D.C. and the state capitals. 

This grant is one of Atlantic's final "big bets" as its disperses the last of its funds. We've written about some of the other bets, including a major gift to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Atlantic Philanthropies is slated to stop all new grantmaking in 2016 and close down completely by 2020.