How a Corporate Funder Is Taking On the Opioid Epidemic

Earlier this year, we explored the motivations and implications of a huge $50 million commitment that General Electric (GE) made to public schools, health centers and workforce development efforts in Boston. This came after a January 2016 announcement that the multi-national conglomerate corporation would be moving its headquarters to Boston, lured in part by a controversial package of tax incentives that totaled around $145 million. 

GE’s CEO once said that said that for every tax dollar that subsidizes the company's relocation, it would give back to Boston a thousand-fold. Not everyone believed him, to put things mildly. 

Related: Yet Another Problematic Corporate Gift: About That GE Money in Boston

Still, there have been promising signs that GE is serious about its philanthropic engagement. During its relocation period, GE officials began conducting a Massachusetts-wide listening tour to figure out what the greatest need is the area. It may not come as a surprise that health was the top concern, but it was the fight against opioids that really caught GE's attention.

Not only is the GE Foundation making donations to this cause locally; it’s engaging in some interesting related activities. 

For example, GE put together a “hack-a-thon” in September to tackle the issue in Boston. GE, which sponsored the event, offered five winners $1,000 each for coming up with a sustainable business model to solve the opioid crisis.

"To me, this weekend was home run for the people we’re trying to help, for the community we’re trying to help, and I think it really did make a statement that GE is committed to the community," said Dr. David Barash, chief medical officer of the GE Foundation.

This comes at a time when Massachusetts’ new opioid prescription monitoring law goes into full swing, and the state imposes one of the toughest laws to curb opioid-related deaths in the nation. The state’s opioid problem worsened as fentanyl gained popularity, either sold on its own or mixed with heroin. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported that 78 people die nationally from opioid-related overdoses each day. Massachusetts lost 1,140 people this way in 2014. 

GE’s commitment to ending opioid use in Boston is part of a much larger $15 million gift directed at community health. Boston Medical Center, for instance, is receiving $700,000 of this to add new staff to work in a program aimed at community health centers and addiction response. And the GE Foundation continues to reiterate its commitment to the Boston community.

“We want our money to have the greatest impact,” Barash said. “We’re a company that believes in being engaged in the community.”

Barash said recently that the GE Foundation approaches opportunities like this as an investor with a business mindset. It's not interested in just writing checks. The funder plans to continue providing support to health providers in Boston after this addiction training process, while simultaneously looking for grantees in need of employee training for specialty care and ones that reach underserved populations.

Overall, the GE Foundation has supported at least 550 health centers and free charitable clinics in all 50 states as part of its Developing Health U.S. initiative. This initiative doesn’t have a specific addiction prevention and treatment-related focus, but rather broader goals of improving access to healthcare and improving skills and capacity needed to expand access for underserved groups.

The GE Foundation has a GE Cities program in Lynn/Boston and has invested at least $845,000 in two health centers, Lynn Community Health Center and Whittier Street Health Center. At least $4.7 million in GE Foundation contributions were made in Massachusetts last year. Learn more about local GE Foundation health opportunities here.