SALT LAKE CITY — Last year, Salt Lake mother Paige Strate found her world turning upside down. Her marriage was about to end, and her then 1-year-old daughter Luisa was diagnosed with moderate bilateral conductive hearing loss, which affected her speech and language development.
The newly single mother was in a quandary: How could she pay for expensive treatment for her daughter’s condition that her health insurance would not completely cover?
“My daughter’s hearing loss wasn’t that extreme, so the insurance didn’t cover it,” Strate said.
It's a problem facing many: “I had health insurance and I actually have a great job, but my daughter needed something that I wasn’t able to provide for her,” Strate said. “As a newly single working mom, I was trying hard not to let my daughter feel the effects of her family falling apart.”
Her solution came after an online search for help. Strate applied for and received a grant from the UnitedHealthcare Children’s Foundation. The $2,000 medical grant was awarded for hearing aids, follow-up appointments, hearing tests and ear molds that would have otherwise cost her money that she really didn’t have at the time.
She said it took about four weeks from the time she submitted her application to the time she received confirmation of approval. The moment she received notification was an emotional experience, she said.
“To get that letter of acceptance was one of the biggest days of my life,” Strate said. “It was extremely overwhelming. I remember opening the letter and crying.”
Helping Utah families
The UnitedHealthcare Children’s Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization that offers medical grants to help children access health-related services not covered, or not fully covered, by their parents’ commercial health insurance plan. The foundation is a subsidiary of Minnesota-based UnitedHealthcare, an operating division of UnitedHealth Group, the largest single health carrier in the United States.
Qualified families can receive up to $5,000 annually per child with a $10,000 lifetime maximum. Recipients must be 16 years old or younger, but do not have to be insured through UnitedHealthcare to be eligible, said Matt Peterson, UnitedHealthcare Children's Foundation president.
Established in 1999, the foundation has awarded more than $23 million in grants to more than 7,500 children and their families nationwide. The foundation’s funding is provided by contributions from individuals, corporations and UnitedHealth Group employees, as well as through sales of children’s books from the “Oliver & Hope” series of illustrated stories that aim “to help families facing the challenges of a child’s medical condition.”
In 2013, the foundation made about $143,000 in grants to 40 Utah families for various medical-related needs. Since 2011, there have been 107 grants awarded to Utah families in the amount of nearly $313,000. Nationally, the foundation raised $5.6 million last year.
“The foundation was built around providing support for families where expenses that might not be covered by a traditional policy could be reimbursed,” Peterson said. Typical grants are about $3,300 and parents apply when they have no other way to pay for the care their child needed.
“Right now, if you can get through the application process, the chances of you getting an award are 85 to 90 percent,” Peterson said. The upper end of the income qualification limit is $125,000 for a larger family, and down to $25,000 for smaller families.
“This program is designed for working families who have an unforeseen medical challenge,” he said. Families use the funds for autism treatment, wheelchairs, pharmaceuticals, medical treatment, hearing aids, speech therapy, counseling and medical testing among other things, he explained.
The majority of the money raised for the foundation is from employee contributions with the company matching donations dollar for dollar, Peterson said.
How a business can help
Meanwhile, one Utah company is among the local firms that have developed nonprofits to provide aid to employees in need of assistance. Ogden-based Avantguard Monitoring Centers launched its nonprofit in February, after its chief executive officer, Josh Garner, read the book “Love Works, Seven Timeless Principles of Effective Leaders” by theme park mogul Joel Manby.
“It’s all about how love is effective in the workplace,” Garner explained. “It’s all about treating your employees kindly.”
He contacted Manby to inquire about starting a nonprofit and also spoke with the director of Manby’s Share It Forward Foundation. Armed with the requisite information, he began working to create the AG Cares Foundation.
“The very first core value as a company is that we care about the work that we do, we care about our customers and we care about the lives and property that we’re protecting,” Garner explained. “This (foundation) is evidence that we also care about our own team members.”
He said the book and the realization that a number of Avantguard employees had endured personal hardships made him acutely aware of the need to do what he could to help.
“We’ve had employees get into motorcycle accidents, we’ve had child custody issues where folks needed help with legal expenses, immigration cases where folks needed help bringing family members to the United States, premature babies and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “These people come and work for us all day and give so much of themselves, then go home and face these hardships.”
Garner said the foundation is on target to raise about $18,000 by year’s end. Like UnitedHealthcare, Avantguard fully matches employee contributions.
The company has formed an internal committee made up of volunteer rank-and-file workers and management to review and approve assistance requests. The committee evaluates the applications without knowing the name of the individual making the request in order to make the process as fair as possible, Garner explained.
He said because of the limited funding — the company has 180 employees total — the tax-free grants the firm is able to offer its employees are typically in the hundreds of dollars. The largest gift so far has been $1,200 to a family to repair their only working vehicle.
Among those grateful Avantguard employees is Dustin Zaugg. The 29-year-old Ogden resident has worked for the company for more than nine years and was also one of the first people to sign up to contribute to the newly formed foundation upon its launch earlier this year.
In May, his family encountered a difficult financial challenge that threatened to cost them their only vehicle. Zaugg’s wife delivered their now-6-month-old daughter seven weeks prematurely in February, resulting in a 32-day hospital stay in the neonatal intensive care unit — at a cost of about $1,000 per day. While insurance paid for the majority of the bill, they were still left to pay about 10 percent to 15 percent out of pocket.
The family was left weighing what bills they could afford to pay, Zaugg explained, including their mortgage and for their car.
He submitted an application to AG Cares Foundation asking for financial help to pay one mortgage payment or one car payment. Within two weeks he had the check in hand to make his car payment.
“It was either pay my car payment or repossession. We were looking at losing the vehicle,” Zaugg said. “It was whether or not I would continue driving to work everyday or tack on two to three hours onto my commute time due to public transportation.”
Back on their feet
A few months later, their financial situation has improved and the baby is healthy. Having the foundation has been a major help at this workplace.
“It really improves the culture of a company,” he said. “It makes me feel better about working for the company, that we are able to give back to the employees.”
Setting up a nonprofit can be time-consuming, said Jason Rogers, partner in the Salt Lake office of law firm Michael Best & Friedrich. But the overall benefits to morale and the desire to aid employees in need have prompted a growing number of firms to make the choice to establish foundations, he said.
Generally, companies need to have about 100 employees or more to form such nonprofits, he said.
“It’s one of those recruitment tools that either keeps people or might attract people to the company because the company cares,” Rogers said. “It’s something that could help out a lot of people, and in the number of large companies that have done (so), it certainly has helped a lot of people.”