MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON, Wis. – The public fund at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health devoted to making “Wisconsin a healthier state for all” has become a funder of housing and gardening projects – as well as a variety of left-wing issue advocacy groups. 

In granting millions of dollars to liberal advocacy organizations, the Wisconsin Partnership Program, the grant distribution arm of the UW fund, has departed from its core public health mission and turned a “generous and visionary endowment” into a cash conduit for leftwing organizations and causes, according to a former insurance executive who shepherded the fund’s creation. 

Tom Hefty, former chairman and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, said the questionable grants come at a time when Wisconsin is slipping in key national health rankings, and as the University of Wisconsin Foundation continues to siphon sizable revenue from the fund in annual administrative costs and fees

“It’s close to criminal,” Hefty told MacIver News Service. “The political spending has really accelerated over the last two years.”

Charitable Legacy

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 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. 

“It is documented in so many places that the funds were not to be used for advocacy but for traditional health care needs,” Hefty said.

The order specified 35 percent of each school’s conversion funds be allocated for public health programs and the remaining 65.percent be allocated for medical education and research programs, according to a 2015 Legislative Audit Bureau report. 

The Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance stated as much in an informational document on the conversion, which also established the Wisconsin United for Health Foundation, Inc. to receive the proceeds from the conversion

“… (T)he foundation would assure that funds now used to support a nonprofit health insurer would continue to be applied to health care challenges and initiatives,” the June 2002 OCI document states.

Money Misspent?

The money was to be used for initiatives like combating high African American infant mortality rates (Wisconsin has the dubious honor of leading the nation in this category), expanding immunizations, and taking on Wisconsin’s opioid crisis, Hefty said.

Housing policies wouldn’t seem to fit that core mission, but the Partner Program in December announced 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.” 

It’s the broader social concern in low-income communities, according to the fund managers. 

“Many factors influence health and well-being, including access to safe and stable housing,” states a Wisconsin Partnership Program press release. 

The project activities will include “building a community-driven advisory council, conducting a health impact assessment and recruiting and training tenant leadership teams.” The purpose, according to the organization, is to “create conditions for local, state and/or federal policymakers to improve current housing policies to help increase affordability, quality and stability, ultimately improving health and well-being for low-income Wisconsinites and their families.” Doing so will “alleviate Wisconsin’s housing crisis and its effects on public health.” 

“Crisis,” however may not be the applicable term. While housing affordability is a challenge, driven by depleted housing stock, Milwaukee area housing prices have fared better than a lot of metropolitan areas.  

Last year, Milwaukee cracked the top 50 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual listing of “Best Places to Live,” moving to No. 47 from No. 72 in 2016. “The leap was driven by the city’s low cost of living combined with an improved affordability ranking,” the Milwaukee Business Journal reported. Housing costs, lower than the national average, played a part in the improved ranking.

Bankrolling Left-Wing Causes

Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, which asserts that “(a)dvocacy is more than just helping families and individuals,” is staffed by some notable liberal policy advocates in the progressive movement. 

Mike Bare, the group’s research and program coordinator, is a vocal critic of 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. 

The institute’s communications director is Lisa Kaiser, a former assistant editor at the left-wing Shepherd Express. Her newspaper described her as someone who has “consistently represented the paper’s progressive vision of a more just and ethical society …”

Former Dem state Rep. Jon Richards serves as a consultant to the group. 

Community Advocates has received at least $2 million in grants from the UW Medical School fund, according to foundation annual reports. According to Community Advocates’ website, the community organization has grown from a staff of about 30 to 125 employees, with a budget of nearly $12 million. 

“The headquarters has moved from a small, ill-equipped building on Milwaukee’s north side to a large, newly renovated building downtown that is accessible to clients from all over the city,” the website notes.  

The medical school foundation’s most recent report shows the Wisconsin Partnership Program 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 {sic} 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 said. 

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

Or is there? Are such grants, as Hefty asserts, designed to help build advocacy and support for left-wing political causes and candidates?  

In 2012, COWS attempted to form the national progressive answer to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a bogeyman of the left. COWS’ American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) was expected to be the “Progressive Antidote” to ALEC’s free-market successes, according to COWS director, UW-Madison lefty Professor Joel Rogers. 

“ALICE is an open, public transparent resource” established to provide “a starting place for activists, policymakers and others interested in progressive model law,” he said in a statement of introduction.

In addition, the UW medical school health fund handed out smaller grants for bike paths in Madison, organic gardening plots, transgender education programs, and stress reduction programs for Madison police. 

“These would be interesting United Way programs, but they are not traditional public health services,” Hefty said. And those services, the former insurance executive said, are badly needed in Wisconsin – a state which has seen its position in national health outcomes ranking plummet. 

Dr. Robert Golden, UW medical school dean, said 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.

Perhaps, but some of the people involved in the nonprofits that have received grants certainly have worn their politics on their sleeves.

In April 2002, seven months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Rogers attacked President George W. Bush and his administration as “criminals” and “ruthless” and “evil motherf***ers.”

As reported in a perspective piece for the Wisconsin Public Policy Research Institute, Rogers told the Reclaiming America Conference in Washington, D.C.:

“They (Bush and his supporters) stole the presidency. Now they’re in the process of stealing the rest of the country. They wish to enthrall us and embark on another 40-year war …They’re cruel. They are vicious. They have no shame. They are criminals, basically, who are in the land, running it and choking the breath of conscience and good cheer. Or in social science expression, they are ruthless motherf***ers. Whatever their cheerful demeanor, I think we should keep that in mind. These people are bad. I don’t use the word ‘evil’ loosely. “Let’s use it now. Let’s call them ‘evil motherf***ers.’ They are really bad people. They are taking apart the country.”

Many of the endowment funds issued over the run of the Wisconsin United for Health Foundation, however, have focused on core, traditional healthcare initiatives and scholarships.

The Wisconsin Partnership Program’s more recent awards, totaling $4 million, do include 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 the program, like some of the advocacy groups it has partnered with, paint the foundation’s funding mission broader, it would seem, than the original board had intended.

“The new awards reflect the Partnership Program’s recognition that many factors influence health and well-being,” a program press release states.

Golden said the Partnership Program recognizes that while “traditional” public health approves are “critical, additional, new approaches are also necessary in order to address the environmental and social factors that have an even greater impact on health than does health care services.”

“Ask any clinician who treats children with asthma about the limited outcomes in prescribing medications to patients who live in substandard housing environments filled toxic allergens,” he said in defending the public health fund’s broader community initiatives.

Declining Health

The Badger state has fallen from 6th best to 21st in America’s Health ranking, formerly known as the United Health ranking. Wisconsin was one of only three states to drop eight rankings in five years.

“The 2017 report looks at 35 measures covering behaviors, community and environment, policy, clinical care and outcomes data,” according to the rankings’ executive summary. The report also serves as a benchmark for states – and the nation – to measure progress, identify emerging trends and drive action for improving public health. 

While Wisconsin ranked 12th in the nation in overall child well-being, according to a 2017 Annie E. Casey Foundation report, the state was 28th among states for children’s health. The numbers were worse when looking at disparities in the health of African-American children. 

Golden said while the  Wisconsin Partnership Program has a substantial endowment, “it’s resources pale in comparison to those of a state department of health or other governmental agencies.”

“Wisconsin has a longstanding track record of low governmental public health funding. In fact, Wisconsin often ranks as one of the lowest states, and in some years the very lowest, in state government support for public health programs, with a consistent downward linear trend that began in the early 1990s,” Golden said.

The left and their advocacy health groups will blame Walker, legislative Republicans, and their policies for the declining numbers in the election campaign ahead, Hefty said. They already have. But pumping money into liberal, big-government initiatives led by increased federal expenditures to states haven’t stopped the health ranking declines. 

Hefty points to a $12 million, five-year UW initiative to combat Wisconsin’s woeful black infant mortality rates. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found African-American babies born in the Badger State die before age 1 at a higher rate than any other state in the nation. 

“It didn’t work, the numbers went in the wrong direction,” Hefty said. 

Multi-Million Dollar Overhead

Millions of dollars each year continue to be siphoned from the UW medical school endowment fund in management fees. The fund is managed by the University of Wisconsin Foundation, which up until 2012 took a 1 percent “institutional advancement fee.” It now charges 1 percent for amounts up to $250 million and 0.7 percent over $250 million. 

The Institutional Advancement Fees were $1,586,589 for the six months ended June 30, 2017, according to the latest fund report, which will be discussed Friday at the Wisconsin United for Health Foundation meeting.  

“Revenues are shown after these fees have been deducted,” the report states.

The Medical College in Milwaukee does not have a management fee.  

According to the Legislative Audit Bureau report, the UW fund was valued at $381.2 million at the end of 2013, while the medical college fund was worth $428 million, a $47 million difference. 

“Think of how many scholarships, how many immunizations that could have gone to,” Hefty said. 

M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.