A major health insurance foundation is targeting substance use and mental health disparities

The Elevance Health Foundation—formerly known as the Anthem Foundation, but still the philanthropic arm of the health insurance giant that was similarly renamed Elevance Health—recently announced a $13 million commitment to several community mental health programs. What is perhaps most important to note about these new grants is that they demonstrate an acceleration of the funder’s strategic reimagining from the COVID era to focus on improving health and access to care for communities that have long had more than their fair share of health problems.

“Over the past few years, the effects of COVID-19 and recent social unrest have really brought attention to the racial disparities and health disparities that have plagued our communities for far too long,” said Maggie Bowden, program manager at Elevance. This difficult period in American health care was an opportune time for Elevance to consider what’s next for the foundation, she said. “We’ve redefined our approach and really sharpened our focus to invest in partnerships and programs that address health inequities for the socially vulnerable.”

This strategic refocusing resulted in Elevance’s three-year, $90 million philanthropic giving strategy, which focuses on four pillars. Substance use is one of these pillars, along with improving maternal and child health, promoting the use of healthy food as medicine, and providing disaster relief. (For more, see Connie Matthiessen’s March article on the then-Anthem Foundation’s funding for maternal health.)

Elevance’s latest $13 million, which includes grant commitments to 15 organizations, will support programs to promote mental health equity, with a special focus on helping people with substance use problems. Grantees will pursue goals such as prevention and early intervention around risk factors that lead to substance use disorders, improved access to and quality of treatment for these disorders, and community support to promote lifelong recovery. The grants are part of Elevance’s broader plans to invest $30 million over three years to address substance use and its health impacts.

One grantee, for example, is Shatterproof, a national addiction services organization. Funding from Elevance will help the organization address stigma and discrimination, which are among the main barriers to receiving addiction treatment. But as Bowden pointed out, different communities have different needs and require different approaches. As a result, grants also go to local non-profit organizations. One such nonprofit organization is Youth First, which works in the state of Indiana, providing substance abuse care and other services to help children and families.

According to Elevance, about 9.5 million adults in the U.S. currently report suffering from both a substance use disorder and a mental illness. Substance use disorders—including the use of alcohol, heroin and synthetic opioids, and methamphetamine—affect more than 20 million Americans age 12 and older.

But mental health and substance abuse are among the most difficult health problems to treat because they involve so many complex factors—including issues of biology and physical health, psychological and family factors, trauma, and historical and socioeconomic conditions and stressors. And these issues need to be addressed across a wide range of different specialties and care providers—crisis response, medical care, social workers, psychologists, etc. This is what mental health professionals and policymakers call the “continuum of care.”

Elevance strives to address this continuum. “As we’ve approached the funding footprint around substance use disorder, we’ve taken into account the mental health component, but first and foremost we’re looking at how to look at funding from prevention and early intervention to treatments – whether that’s crisis response or immediate post-crisis — as well as long-term interventions,” said Bowden. “So we’re thinking about how our programs can span that continuum of care around substance use disorder treatment and mental health.”

Of course, the lessons learned about developing a continuum of care for individuals and communities do not apply only to substance use disorders and mental health care. These are the same types of challenges that affect many health and well-being issues and speak to the disparities between communities. “We really recognize that health is much more than health care,” Bowden said.

Leave a Comment