Thomas Aschenbrener Leaves a Legacy Devoted to Equity and Social Justice

The president of Northwest Health Foundation since its inception in 1997 steps down on June 18 when his successor is announced
The Lund Report

May 10, 2012 -- As Thomas Aschenbrener prepares to step down as president of Northwest Health Foundation, he’s emboldened by the legacy that he leaves behind, having created an organization committed to equity and social justice.

Nowhere is that more obvious than the foundation’s emphasis on the social determinants of health – those factors outside the healthcare system that impact the population’s health – food security, adequate housing, a strong educational system and affordable

“I feel very flattered and humbled that this foundation is where it is today,” he said. “We’ve set a style and path and a commitment that will be a strong base for
whatever comes next. I have total and complete belief that Northwest Health Foundation can deliver an amazing benefit to our community over time, and I’m proud of the way
we’ve done business, and that we’ve launched other philanthropies and foundations who’ve modeled their work off of ours.”

Now that Oregon is primed to become a national leader in healthcare transformation, with the announcement that the Obama Administration has agreed to provide $1.9 billion in federal funds to help launch coordinated care organizations, it’s critical, Aschenbrener
believes, that the state come to grips with the serious work force issues that will make it virtually impossible for primary care physicians to take care of everyone needing healthcare.

“Many of us believe that our traditional way of preparing a work force for health is not going to serve us well in the new system of coordinated care organizations,” he said. “For example, what does meaningful access to care in a patient-centered approach look like?”

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can definitely play a more commanding role in Oregon’s transformed healthcare system, helping people manage their chronic diseases such as diabetes and practicing preventive medicine.

“Primary care physicians are actually evolving in their thinking and understand, that if they’re going to be successful in the future, they’re going to have to work with other practitioners to do the work,” said Aschenbrener, who’s gratified to hear that community health workers will be joining the work force.

The healthcare system can no longer afford the luxury of having specialists, such as cardiologists handle all their patients’ needs, telling them they no longer need to return to their primary care physician.

“That is a total disruption and an unnecessary cost burden on our system,” he said. “We need to look at not what’s in the best interest of one patient, but collectively all patients because we won’t have enough practitioners to take care of all the healthcare needs. Therefore, we need to do things more efficiently and effectively. We need to agree that the common interests are what need to be supported; that’s where regulations are important so we can start in a modest way and evolve into what’s going to work.”

Aschenbrener also believes that the mind set of the medical schools needs to change, and be based upon a collective approach, rather than the hierarchal model that controls the healthcare system.

“Until we make the changes in the educational structure, we cannot expect practitioners to think and work in a different way,” he said.

As an example of what works, he pointed to Pacific University, which offers training for allied health professionals including dental hygienists, and the osteopathic college in Lebanon.

“The osteopathic school is all about collaborative skill sets across disciplines, and is perfectly consistent with the way osteopathic medicine is practiced,” he said. That compares to our current allopathic medical education which provides limited cross disciplinary experiences for the students." 

When the foundation purchased its building in the Portland Pearl District five years ago, Aschenbrener felt strongly about creating a center for philanthropy, a place where small foundations – many of them family-run – could have office space and rely on the foundation’s staff for support. Now the entire second floor of its building is devoted to
such endeavors.

“I felt that if small philanthropic organizations were able to do the exact things that they articulated, they needed to be in an environment with other people doing similar things,” he said. “Long before they came here, these small foundations were being run out of a person’s office or in an extra bedroom or their lawyer’s office. We also had a number of
nonprofits that wanted to be tenants here, but we limited it to grant-making entities.”

Now 10 foundations occupy its second floor, including the Ford Family Foundation, the Chalkboard Project and the Portland Reading Foundation.

“When we purchased the building, we were able to walk our talk and be what we say, and create a model for promoting health in the community,” he said. “The idea of the center for philanthropy creates a statement that philanthropy exists in this community. There
are people here who care about philanthropy and it’s a space that affirms collaborative philanthropy among multiple entities – a place where the community is welcome.”

Under Aschenbrener’s leadership, Northwest Health Foundation has also initiated a national partnership with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and several local partnerships such as the $28 million Kaiser Permanente Community Fund, which was initiated in 2004.

And, Aschenbrener and the Northwest Health Foundation also receive ongoing recognition for work in the area of social justice and equity. In November 2011, he was given the Urban League of Portland’s “Equal Opportunity Day Award,” bestowed on an individual who has made significant contributions to the cause of equality. In accepting the award, Aschenbrener said “I believe we will only thrive as a community
with intentional multiculturalism, not the melting pot of assimilation.”

Northwest Health Foundation has long been considered a leader, locally and nationally, in pursuing advocacy as an effective means to achieve social change. Among the many legislative efforts the foundation has led, participated in, or funded, during recent
sessions are those involving smoke-free workplaces, healthcare transformation, the removal of soda machines in Oregon schools, menu labeling, cultural competency in health care, farm-to-school, nurse faculty loan alleviation, and the establishment of dental pilot projects.

Now as Aschenbrener prepares to retire on June 18, he’s confident the board of directors will do an outstanding job selecting his successor.

“I feel very confident; the board is extremely talented in doing this, and I know they’ll choose somebody who’ll be able to lead and come in and imprint this foundation with their own thinking to make this foundation the best it can possibly be.”

Meanwhile, people keep asking Aschenbrener what he intends to do upon retirement. “I’ve been clearing my plate and leaving the board positions I’ve been on,” he said. “After I leave the foundation, I wish to contemplate the nothingness of that particular moment. I don’t feel that I’m finished with my life quest to make a difference. That’s been my passion for years. I feel there’s something more I’m supposed to do and
don’t know what is yet. But I cannot envision – even in retirement – a life not in service to the community.”

To read a tribute to Aschenbrener from Dr. Tina Castanares, board chair of Northwest Health Foundation, that was written for the Northwest Regional Primary Care Association, click here.

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