Billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott recently published a website listing the more than 1,600 organizations to which she’s given donations. A few of those recipients are based in Alaska, and the largest Alaska gift of $15 million went to the Mat-Su Health Foundation in 2022.
The foundation co-owns and co-governs the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center with a for-profit partner company. Mat-Su Health Foundation CEO Elizabeth Ripley says they reinvest their share of hospital profits back into the community through grants and scholarships.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Elizabeth Ripley: It is a very unique relationship that has yielded really significant dividends for our community. By example, when we sit in the boardroom of the hospital with our partner, we’re really trying to represent the community and community needs. And in all of our research, mental health and substance use needs have been elevated. No matter what we’re researching, community members tell us about the struggles that families are having with drugs and alcohol, and mental health. And through research and tenacity, we convinced our hospital to actually invest in and create a behavioral health unit, that we actually now need to expand to serve the needs of Mat-Su.
Michael Fanelli: What are some of the main projects and initiatives that you work on here?
ER: An example in our first Community Health Needs Assessment that we did in 2013, the top five health issues were all related to mental health and substance use disorder. And so again, we work with nonprofits and leaders in the community to do that work. So it looks like right now, we’re helping create Crisis Now, which is a whole new crisis response system for mental health and substance use disorder. So folks who are having one of these challenges doesn’t have to go to either jail, or the hospital ER, which were the only places legally that they could go. Now they can go to this third place, thanks to legislation that passed last session, where hopefully, we’ll have better informed and appropriate treatment and support for those individuals.
MF: So getting into that grant, you said someone did call you confidentially beforehand, they learned a little bit about the company before deciding to give? What was that process like?
ER: Sure, in February of 2022, folks reached out to us by email and said that they were working with a philanthropist who is interested in making a donation – a potential investment in the MatSu Health Foundation. And the one piece that I think was super critical was we asked “Well, how did you find out about us?” You know, because we’re a place-based funder in the Mat-Su Borough in Alaska. And they said that our colleagues across the nation were talking about our work, which was super gratifying. But they were particularly interested in our rural equity work.
Reflecting later on this gift of $15 million, it’s not going to be realistic for MacKenzie Scott, who’s trying to give billions of dollars away, to invest in a tiny senior center in Talkeetna – with what’s really going to be a small amount – that will do amazing work. But by giving it to us, we can make those smaller grants in what are really rural areas with low population densities, and get those dollars to address health equity issues in those communities.
MF: This grant aside, which area of your organization would you say you’re most focused on developing in the coming years?
ER: We do a lot of public policy work. And over the years, we have really, I think, increased that. One of our most important areas of focus in the coming years will be really addressing hospital pricing, and healthcare pricing, and controlling healthcare costs to help families. So, we advocated for Medicaid expansion, and we got a lot more people covered. And that really helped hospitals in Alaska get paid for services they weren’t getting paid for, but those savings were not passed on to consumers and families. And so the next era of our policy work is, we really want to have that trickle down all the way to families, and consumers, and businesses and reduce Alaska’s health care costs – which are the highest in the world.