$50,000 dollars – That’s what The California Endowment awarded in grants specifically to “make health insurance accessible to all in California.”
$70,000,000 dollars, at least – That’s what the Endowment spent on advocacy, organizing, media, communications, empowerment, etc. grants.
The egregious ethics and base immorality of a $4.4 billion dollar foundation created specifically to improve health care access for the un-and-underinsured of the state spending barely even a token amount of money on its statutory purpose is perfectly clear. Whether or not it’s legal is a bit less so.
The Endowment’s articles of incorporation state, “No substantial part of the activities of this corporation shall consist of carrying on propaganda…” and that the Endowment’s primary purpose is to “improve the availability of and access to such care and services to the uninsured, underinsured, and underserved populations…” of California.
Clearly, something is grossly amiss, but how the state technically defines “substantial” and “politics” seems to give the Endowment a loophole they smugly drive a gold-plated social justice warrior political favor-filled truck right on through.
According to legal experts, in this context “politics” typically refers to giving directly to candidates – ballot propositions don’t count – and “substantial” means spending no more than about 10% of the total budget on lobbying and such. Therefore, the definitions are crucial to the discussion of propriety.
While they had said they would comment, the Attorney General Rob Bonta’s press office eventually did not reply to questions about exactly what the Endowment – as a creature of state and overseen, like other charities, by Bonta’s Office of Charitable Trusts – is actually allowed to do, how much it can spend, and what it can spend it on.
It is clear, however, that, using any real-world, accepted, typical, and/or rational definition, what they are engaged is clearly political, with the nearly boiler plate “health care” reference in each of the grant descriptions (on their IRS filing) seeming more like a CYA rider, a “just in case anyone asks see, see really it says health care somewhere in it so it’s part of our mission” self-insurance ploy.
For its part, the Endowment states that its own, broad to the point of meaningless, definition of health care as – “not just health care, it is shown through research and other health experts that the place where you live, work, go to school, play, etc. can have both negative and positive impact on your health” means that it can spend its money in that manner.
In fact, Endowment Communications Director and former state Assembly member Sarah Reyes, specifically said “(P)atient advocacy for better access and improved health care is important and is not a political activity.”
For the record, the word “patient” occurs only six times in the hundreds of grant descriptions.
The Endowment – and its sister non-profit the California Health Care Foundation – were created in 1996 when Blue Cross bought a for-profit insurance company. The state stepped in and demand that, in order to approve the deal, the two foundations be created (the actual whys and wherefores of the politics of that edict are as byzantine as the Istanbul sewer system and as shrouded in mystery as the story of Atlantis.)
So let’s look at the specifics of the spending, but first a note. The information is taken from the Endowment’s IRS Form 990 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022 – see here: https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/954523232/202300459349100400/full . The Endowment had a total budget of about $212 million (generated by its $4.4 billion trust) and it spent about $63 million on staff and overhead (president Dr. Robert Ross makes $818,000-plus each year) and the rest on grants and related disbursements.
The form was submitted in February of this year. The numbers below were arrived at by using the “find a word” editing tool and going through the “Grants and Contributions Paid During the Year or Approved for Future Payment” section multiple times, once for each term. It is possible that there is an amount of duplication between terms (i.e. an “advocacy” grant may also mention “organizing,” etc.) but that does not appear to occur on a significant number of occasions. The numbers are totals, but rounded. Finally, the number does not include any internal staffing, costs associated with awarding and/or overseeing said grants, and, for example, paying for the internal social media team that posted this:
Enough said. 🌈 pic.twitter.com/Z1xPYDq7Fl
— California Endowment (@CalEndow) June 13, 2023
ADVOCACY – $21.6 million dollars
Grants that use that word include donations to the Sierra Club, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund,) the Tides Foundation, a multi-million dollar foundation itself, UC-Irvine, and the AFL-CIO amongst dozens of others.
COMMUNICATION – $7.7 million dollars
Grantees include the Center for Empowered Politics Education Fund (formerly part of the Chinese Progressive Alliance) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), California chapter. CAIR is a rather controversial organization whose connection to “health care” is tenuous at best, considering the paucity of references found when “health care” is searched on their website.
GENERAL OPERATING – $5.3 million dollars
Grantees include GLSEN, the notorious LGBQTIA2S+ group that participates actively in creating public education standards and strictures regarding gender and sexuality issues.
ORGANIZING – $10 million dollars
Grantees include the ACCE Institute, whose mission is “to improve the lives of California’s traditionally underserved residents, including communities of color, low-income and working families, and the undocumented population, by carrying out work that fosters deep, indigenous leadership development, policy creation, robust civic participation, and broad community empowerment.,” in part by “turning out unlikely voters in our target communities.” Also receiving money – a lot, about $2.2 million dollars – is the California Calls Education fund which, though its many sub-charities, focuses on “organizing voters most impacted by budget cuts and deteriorating public services in support of systemic, progressive solutions to our state’s fiscal crisis.”
The reference to “voters” and “voting” in these two particular grants could expose the Endowment to serious questions about their political activity but, as noted above, Bonta’s office did not reply.
MEDIA – $7 million dollars.
Grantees include various “journalism” associations, Oakland-based Youth Radio, and the good ol’ Sacramento Bee itself, which received $173,566 to pay for its health care reporting (this is possibly an on-going grant program that started four years ago it seems – the form was a bit fuzzy on that.)
Multiple attempts were made to contact the Bee and its parent company McClatchy to ask how it is even remotely ethical for the for-profit(?) newspaper of record in the capitol of the world’s fifth-largest economy to take money from a major health care industry player to cover the health care industry. No response came.
The Endowment also gave a paltry sum to the non-profit CalMatters, but its sister charity – the California Health Care Foundation – gave it about $600,000 (about 7% of the CalMatters budget) to support health care coverage, according to their last IRS forms.
CalMatters CEO Neil Chase said the CHCF has given multiple grants over the years but that no donor has any say in the actual reporting produced.
“The revenue source has no access to the newsroom,” Chase said, noting donors who have attempted to directly influence specific stories and/or complained about a coverage “angle” are met with a stone wall.
“We do piss off our donors and we have lost some” because of that, Chase said.
The CHCF said it, too, maintains that wall and justified the expense this way:
“Part of our mission is to make sure that Californians have the information they need to make decisions about health care,” said chief communications officer Eric Antebi. “Supporting high quality, independent health journalism is an important part of that. Our journalism grantees have editorial independence, and we have no say in their health coverage.”
This is somewhat similar to the way newspapers – when they depended upon general advertising revenue – handled complaints from a major advertiser, Chase said (N.B. – as a reporter who once had a local chamber of commerce threaten to pull every ad from every business based in the city if I was not fired, I do note the similarity. Of course, that was a good ethical financially stable newspaper – find one of those now – so they told the chamber to pound sand. These days, those situations may be a bit more wobbly, see above about the Bee.)
Chase admitted, though, that CalMatters has been lax of late in noting who is paying for the health care “beat” in specific stories, as they clearly state in stories from the community college “beat” which is paid for entirely by a different donor.
“Attributions should be in the stories and we can do a better job and make sure to do it right,” Chase said. “Quality and credibility are the most important things to us.”
In today’s media world, attribution is more than just advisable, said longtime newspaper reporters and Society of Professional Journalists director for ethics and diversity Rod Hicks.
“These types of arrangements are not unusual for foundations to cover the cost of the issue they care about,” Hicks said. “But they cannot have any involvement in the stories and (the news outlet) really should indicate the story was made possible by the foundation.”
The Bee, by the way, does not appear to do that.
The Association of Health Care Journalists – an influential national writers group that “informs” its members on how to write about things like gun violence as a health care issue – also received money. They did not respond to request for comment.
EMPOWER – $5 million dollars
Grantees include the Chinese Progressive Association, Freedom for Immigrants (they believe there should be no such as immigration-related detention,) and the Oakland-based Center for Cultural Power which describes itself as “a women of color, artist-led organization, inspiring artists and culture makers to imagine a world where power is distributed equitably and where we live in harmony with nature…Together with allies, we are co-creating a field of cultural strategy with organizations and practitioners through convenings, design teams and strategy tables.” The Center website is currently featuring a piece on “Black Queer Femme Led Climate Solutions.”
GRASSROOTS – $5.5 million dollars
Grantees include, again, GLSEN, the Movement Strategy Center, which says its mission:
“(is for) a Just Transition from a world of domination, extraction, and violence — where the few live at the expense of the many — to a world of interdependence, liberation, and resilience — where the many govern for the benefit of all. We understand that a Just Transition is only possible when the voices of BIPOC, women, and LGBTQIA+ leaders are honored, celebrated, and amplified, not merely tolerated.”
AFFORDABLE – $7.8 million dollars
This category is interesting as about $750,000 went to “affordable health care” while $7 million went to “affordable housing” groups.
EQUITY – $70 million dollars
Caveat – this figure most likely has the largest “overlap” with others, as an unsurprisingly large number of grant descriptions contain the word “equity” as it THE word of the moment in the foundation/civil society/social economy power blob.
A couple grants, however, stood out. First, $666,667 went to the Association of Black Foundation Executives, a New York-based trade group, for “advancing health equity for California’s black communities.” A look at the group’s website does not reference any expertise and/or even much of an interest in health care, though Endowment chief Ross has been personally involved in group activities.
Second, $5 million went to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The SVCF – and here is their form 990 – makes The California Endowment look like a pauper. It has more than $12 billion in the bank and gave away more than $2 BILLION the year before last. The SVCF made 72 grants larger than the Endowment’s gift. Such a donation seems more like “won’t get ghosted by the venture techies at a cocktail party” type of thing rather than a serious use of funds.
All of that above adds up to $140 million dollars – again there is a certain amount of overlap, especially with the $70 million “equity” section.
And that brings us back to this:
HEALTH INSURANCE – $50,000
Lone grantee – the Korean Resource Center.
Including the “affordable health insurance” funds, brings the total to $800,000 for that sector. That is about one-third of one percent of the Endowment’s budget.
It’s less than what Endowment chief Dr. Robert Ross gets paid.
That’s less than insulting – it’s depraved.
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