Justified Questions: Why Is UW Public Health Fund Granting Millions To Liberal Groups?

Justified Anger is the latest left-wing group to receive a big check from the Wisconsin Partnership Program, the grant distribution arm of the endowment fund at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Why is… Click To Tweet

MacIver News Service | Feb.4, 2019

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — In November 2017, the Nehemiah Community Development Corp. and its Justified Anger initiative published on its website a blog post titled, “How Do I Be a White Ally on Thanksgiving?” 

“As white allies deconstruct and continue to become less insulated by states of mind and experiences wrapped in cushioned bubbles of whiteness, we become more aware of both subtle comments of racism, as well as explicit expressions and statements that perpetuate racist ideologies that can often arise when we gather with family and friends,” the post states.

“My point is, if these national health measures were still in the top 10, then the UW’s focus on social issues might be understandable,” said Tom Hefty.

Members of the Justified Anger Coalition are angry about what they see as rampant racial inequity affecting Dane County’s African-American communities – problems apparently stemming, at least in part, from “cushioned bubbles of whiteness.” 

The social justice group in October received a huge infusion of cash, a $1 million grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program that is supposed to help Madison-based Nehemiah Community Development improve health outcomes for black residents. 

“African-Americans in Wisconsin have poorer health outcomes than their white neighbors due the powerful influence of their social and community context,” the Partnership Program noted in a press release.

The grant will implement a “three-tiered approach,” including education and training for grassroots black neighborhood leaders, professionals, and “white allies through the initiative’s “Justified Anger Black History for a New Day.”

“The team will facilitate cross-cultural interactions with mentorship support that will result in building and strengthening social networks within each community and will support participants with identifying opportunities for collaborative social action,” the press release states.

Justified Anger is the latest left-wing group to receive a big check from the Partnership Program, the grant distribution arm of the endowment fund at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. 

Beyond the fact that some members of the African-American community have raised questions about just what the five-year-old Justified Anger Coalition has done with the money it previously brought in, the grant award raises renewed questions about the managers of the endowment fund’s departure from the original mission of the public health fund.  

And, as Wisconsin’s position in a respected national health ranking continues to fall, the former health care executive who led the creation of the endowment is asking why so much grant money has been going to liberal advocacy groups.

Healthy drop

Wisconsin dropped from 21st in the nation to 23rd in the most recent America’s Health Rankings report, a measure of nearly three-dozen health-related categories. The bigger concern is that Wisconsin’s ranking has plummeted from sixth in 1992. The Badger State recorded the biggest drop of any state over the 29 years the rankings have been published. 

“My point is, if these national health measures were still in the top 10, then the UW’s focus on social issues might be understandable,” said Tom Hefty, former chairman and CEO of the old Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin. “But when the measures of traditional health outcomes are dropping so significantly, the misdirection of funds should be a concern to everyone.”

UW Health Fund Has ‘Strayed Far” From Original Intent, Hefty Says

Hefty worked with the state in the early 2000s in establishing a $600 million endowment to be shared equally by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The Medical College received $303.3 million and UW received $296.6 million. It was the entity’s charitable legacy, central to an agreement that allowed Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin to convert from a non-profit to a for-profit insurance corporation. The Madison fund has grown by more than $100 million over the years. 

The endowment was specifically created to deal with traditional public health issues, like immunizations, infant mortality rates, opioid addiction. 

Democrats blame Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans for a problem that’s persisted for 25 years. “What has changed is UW has wasted its money in foundation dollars,” Hefty said.

Wisconsin’s ranking has fallen in such core health categories over the years. Opioid-related deaths in particular have soared. A record 916 opioid overdose deaths were reported in 2017, far exceeding rates in Midwest neighbors Minnesota and Iowa, according to the National Institute On Drug Abuse.

Wisconsin has declined in other health measures as well. In the Commonwealth Fund’s Healthy Lives rankings, for instance the Badger State has fallen to 21st. Fifteen years ago, when the endowment launched, Wisconsin ranked in the top 10 in key public health measures.

Wisconsin Democrats have blamed former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature, particularly lower public spending, for the slide in the state’s health ranking. But Wisconsin has ranked near the bottom of state spending for public health for the last 25 years, long before Walker and the Republicans took control in 2011 and during the two terms of a Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s tenure.

“What has changed is UW has wasted its money in foundation dollars,” Hefty said.

Wisconsin Partnership Program officials point to several traditional health initiatives paid for through program grants, including a $1 million grant for a project aimed at improving opioid treatment and recovery in rural Wisconsin, and another $1 million to reduce tobacco use in “high risk families.” But they insist that they are advancing public health through their community engagement initiatives, too.

“We realized that if we don’t look at health through the lens of health equity, we won’t be able to improve the health of all Wisconsin communities,” Andrea Dearlove, a senior officer with the Partnership Program told the Wisconsin State Journal in October. “The other thing we realized … is that not all health is created in the doctor’s office.” 

True, but several program initiatives have reached well beyond the original intent of the endowment. And a good chunk of grant money has gone to liberal advocacy groups staffed by movers and shakers in the political progressive movement.

The foundation devoted to making “Wisconsin a healthier state for all” has become a funder of housing and gardening projects. In one grant, the partnership gave $50,000 to fund “School District Implementation of Gender-Inclusive Policies to Improve Outcomes for Transgender Youth” in Madison. 

It has also been a funder of liberal policy organizations, many of them lead by political operators in the Democratic Party.

Liberal advocacy fund

As MacIver News Service reported in May, the Wisconsin Partnership Program gave a $1 million grant to the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute in Milwaukee and its academic partners, including a professor in the UW School of Social Work, for their project, “Creating Conditions to Improve Housing for Wisconsin Families.” 

UW Med School Fund For Public Health Gives Generously To Liberal Policy Advocates

Mike Bare, the group’s research and program coordinator, was a vocal critic of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s policies and an even bigger supporter of Obamacare. Bare has an “extensive grassroots politics and government service background, having worked and consulted for political campaigns at every level of government,” according to the Public Policy Institute’s website. He was a longtime aide to former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold in the Middleton Democrat’s Washington, D.C. office, and served as Feingold’s research director for his 2010 campaign.

David Riemer, the institute’s senior fellow, served as budget director for former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. Throughout the late 1980s and ‘90s, Riemer was budget director and chief of staff for Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, also a Democrat. At one point, Riemer served as legal counsel to U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research. 

“In late 2017, the UW (health foundation) approved $3 million in election year grants to groups for advocacy and not for delivery of traditional public health services,” Hefty wrote in his statement to the legislative committee. “A former U.S. Senate campaign director heads one of those groups. A longtime political activist heads another.”

Dr. Robert Golden, UW medical school dean, last year told MacIver News that the Wisconsin Partnership Program “does not engage in or support partisan efforts.”

“The eligibility criteria for our grant programs are clear: for the community-based grants, to which you referred in your email, applicant organizations must be Wisconsin-based, nonprofit, tax exempt organizations or a tribal or government entity, and lobbying is explicitly prohibited in our policies,” Golden said in an email response to MacIver News Service’s questions.

The medical school foundation awarded $1 million to a policy alliance led by liberal “think-and-do-tank,” Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), housed on the UW-Madison campus. 

Legacy Community Alliance for Health is “a 5-year project aimed at increasing the capacity of Wisconsin municipalities to consider the health implications of their policymaking, programing and budgeting,” according to a COWS release. “Along with its many partners, COWS will help to build that capacity through training, technical assistance and peer learning, culminating in at least one pilot project in each participating municipality during the five year period.”

The project, once again, is not “service delivery,” Hefty told MacIver News last year. 

“Again, there is no measurable goal for the grant,” he said. 

Justified questions?

Justified Anger has faced similar criticisms. Less than two years ago, some leaders in Madison’s African-American community were asking serious questions about what the Rev. Alex Gee, founder of Justified Anger, was doing with the coalition’s money. 

“I don’t (want) to fight you publicly but you raised a half of a million dollars for Justified Anger and have not reported ONE outcome to the community,” Michael Johnson, former CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County wrote in a Facebook post. 

Gee’s founding plan, as reported by the liberal Capitol Times, identified initiatives in education, economic development, mass incarceration, family and community wellness and leadership development. The coalition began with a goal of raising more than $1.5 million. 

“My first thought when I’m thinking about Justified Anger is, I wonder where all that money went,” Ja’Mel Ashely Ware, founder and CEO of Intellectual Ratchet, a company that aims to build diverse networking spaces and events, told the publication. “I think a lot of people have those thoughts.”

“It’s disheartening to see so much financial backing behind something that I personally cannot see in action,” he said.

Gee and Justified Anger officials said the coalition was about building relationships, not leading programs. 

Accountability remains a big question for critics of the Wisconsin Partnership Program, like Hefty. Wisconsin United for Health Foundation Inc., created when the $600 million-plus foundation was being established, was recently disbanded. With it’s departure went the oversight arm of the endowment. 

The latest annual report no longer includes key financial data and impact reports. 

“The oversight foundation is gone, so we are left with a skeleton report and declining health rankings,” Hefty said.