New Ascension Foundation to invest in organizations addressing health disparities

February 15, 2023


Ascension has launched its first national philanthropy. The Ascension Foundation is funding organizations and initiatives that address the root causes of health disparities and that promote health equity. Three academic institutions are the inaugural fund recipients.

A boy learns about oral health from a dental student at an event at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. The historically Black academic health sciences college is one of a trio of initial recipients of grants from the new Ascension Foundation. All three grant recipients are training upcoming generations to tackle health disparities.

Ascension did not disclose the dollar figures for the foundation's allocations.

In a press release, the system said the foundation aims to support programs that have the potential to disrupt generational poverty, create pathways to economic stability for individuals and families and build a health care workforce that better reflects the diversity of the U.S. population.

In the announcement, Ascension Chief Executive Joseph Impicciche said the impetus for the foundation's creation was Ascension's recognition during the throes of the pandemic "that our nation's health care disparities are wider and deeper than ever, and it will require large-scale, national solutions if we are to truly improve the health of communities, particularly communities that have long been underserved."

Impicciche said a hope is that the Ascension Foundation will "catalyze other health systems and organizations to also make long-term investments in eliminating health disparities and strengthening our communities."

Leading the work is Robyn Kress, senior vice president of Ascension Foundation. There are six dedicated foundation staff including Kress. The foundation is governed by a three-member board and has six advisers including Impicciche to provide input on the collaborations the foundation is considering.

A Marian Middle School student completes schoolwork. The private Catholic girls' school in St. Louis was among the recipients of funds from the Ascension Foundation.

Gene Ford, senior director of public relations, marketing and communications at Ascension, said the foundation selected the trio of academic institutions as its first funding recipients based on how successful they've been to date in developing, supporting and promoting health equity.

Ascension is allotting the three initial grants for a three-year term.

Girls' middle school
Recipient Marian Middle School is in St. Louis, where Ascension is based. Seven communities of Catholic sisters founded the school in 1999. Marian President Mary Elizabeth Grimes said the school provides faith-based education to adolescent girls who have a high academic potential and come from families of limited means.

A Meharry Medical College graduate attends her hooding and degree conferral ceremony. The historically Black medical, dental and science institute in Nashville, Tennessee, was among the recipients of funds from the Ascension Foundation.

According to Ascension's release, Marian has helped disrupt poverty by guiding its students to career success. Some Ascension employees are Marian alumnae.

The school has what Ascension describes as a rigorous academic program that incorporates science, technology, engineering and math as well as an enrichment program promoting leadership and self-discovery.

The students' families pay tuition on a sliding scale based on family income. Grimes said Ascension Foundation's grant will support a fund that subsidizes tuition costs for students. The foundation also is providing funds for Marian's graduate support program. That program offers students academic, social and financial support during high school and college and as they pursue a career. Marian's graduate support directors provide students with mentoring and resources through high school and college, and into career success.

Ascension Foundation also is enabling students and their families to purchase low-cost prescription drugs through the Ascension Rx program, which offers medications, often at discounted rates, through a partnership between Ascension and Walgreens. Ford said that while many Marian families have drug coverage through Medicaid, not all do.

Medical college in Nashville
The second fund recipient is Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, where Ascension has a network of health care facilities. Meharry is one of the oldest historically Black academic health sciences centers in the U.S. and is a leading educator of Black medical doctors, dentists and biomedical scientists. According to information from the college, Meharry has trained 14% of all Black physicians and 27% of all Black dentists practicing in the U.S. Meharry also is a top educator of Black biomedical doctors of philosophy in the U.S.

A Meharry Medical College student examines a mock patient. The historically Black medical, dental and science institute in Nashville, Tennessee, was among the recipients of funds from the Ascension Foundation.

Affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Meharry is "particularly well known for its uniquely nurturing, highly effective education programs; emerging prominence in health disparities research; culturally sensitive, evidence-based health services; and significant contribution to the diversity of the nation's health professions workforce," according to Ascension's release.

Ford said Meharry focuses on service to communities of color and low-income communities. According to information from Meharry, many of the school's medical and dental students work in a clinic for the medically underserved and many dental students take part in a day of free oral health care for low-income people. The college provides about $29 million in uncompensated medical and dental care to low-income people annually. And about 83% of alumni physicians and dentists practice in underserved areas.

Ascension Foundation funds will help to cover stipends for lodging, travel and equipment for Meharry students undertaking clinical rotations at Ascension hospitals. This includes surgery rotations in Indianapolis. Ascension also is providing medical education scholarships for four Meharry students each year. And the foundation is investing in Meharry's middle school pipeline programs.

School of medicine in Detroit
Ascension Foundation's grant to Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit will provide tuition support for students of the school's Med-Direct and post baccalaureate programs.

Med-Direct is for high-performing high school students who wish to pursue medical careers in a program that addresses health disparities. The students are accepted into the program as undergraduates and are guaranteed acceptance to the medical school if certain baseline measures are met, according to information from the medical school.

Ascension has an extensive presence in Detroit. The Ascension Foundation may facilitate clinical rotations at Ascension facilities for students in the Med-Direct program.

Wayne State's post baccalaureate program provides students who have completed an undergraduate degree with academic support and wraparound services that enable them to prepare for medical school and a career in medicine. According to Ascension, a goal of the post baccalaureate program is to build a pipeline of physicians dedicated to caring for medically underserved populations and communities.

Ascension plans to measure the impact of the foundation's investments by gauging to what degree the diversity of the health care workforce increases and to what extent social determinants of health are addressed among high-risk populations in the communities Ascension serves.

For future grant allocations, Ascension Foundation said it plans to identify additional organizations that are well established and have had success addressing disparities in their communities, align well with the foundation's focus areas, and share Ascension's values. Ascension wants to invest in organizations or initiatives that can be scaled for greater impact. Recipients do not have to be located in Ascension service areas.


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