The Give: Diana Bontá Talks About Her Plans as the New CEO of The California Wellness Foundation

Diana-BontaDr. Diana Bontá, who began her career as a nurse with a passion for public health, recently moved from Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s executive suite to become president and chief executive officer of The California Wellness Foundation. She was named late last year to her new position, following the retirement of her much-admired predecessor at the Wellness Foundation, Gary L. Yates, who is a former Hispanics in Philanthropy board member. In addition to being a leader in health funding in the Golden State, The California Wellness Foundation ranked second after the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation among the national top 10 funders in grant dollars intended to benefit Latinos from 2007 to 2009, according to the recently released “Foundation Funding for Hispanics/Latinos in the United States and for Latin America.” The study was conducted by the Foundation Center in New York, in cooperation with Hispanics in Philanthropy.
Bontá is troubled by another of the report’s findings: U.S. philanthropic institutions on average target only a penny for every dollar to specifically aid Latinos, the nation’s largest minority. “The demographic growth of the Latino population in the United States provides an opportunity for philanthropy to provide support for families in need,” she said. Bontá most recently had served more than seven years as vice president for public affairs for Kaiser Permanente Southern California. She was born and raised in New York City with her sister, Dr. C. Yolanda Bontá, executive director of the Hispanic Dental Association. They were the daughters of a Chilean machinist and a Puerto Rican nurse’s aide. Their mother was one of 11 children, some of whom moved from the Caribbean island to New York and chose German, Italian, Ecuadorean and Basque spouses, turning their family gatherings into celebrations of diversity.
The two Bontá sisters will be returning to New York in March to receive alumni honors for Community Service from Mother Cabrini High School, their Washington Heights alma mater. After high school, Diana Bontá received her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the State University of New York in Buffalo before obtaining a master’s and doctorate in public health from UCLA. Bontá, a former California state health services department head, still teaches a yearly UCLA graduate course, “The Politics of Public Health.” The new Wellness Foundation executive’s interests within the realm of public health have been far-ranging. Her master’s thesis was about the use of community promotoras for a rural health education program in Guatemala. Early in her career, she worked for the state of California in a variety of positions, which allowed her to learn about the licensing of nursing homes and clinics. She first moved into executive capacities as administrator for the California Rural Health Office. This was followed by five years as deputy director of a reproductive health agency that served as a conduit of federal funding to agencies in Los Angeles and throughout the state.
During her 11-year tenure as director of Health & Human Services for the City of Long Beach, she received the Milton and Ruth Roemer Prize for Creative Local Public Health awarded by the American Public Health Association in 1998, among numerous other tributes. And, while in Long Beach, she deepened her public health expertise in the areas of family health, immunizations, HIV treatment and prevention, gang-intervention and domestic violence reduction, among others. “Some of the people that I worked with went from the City Council to the Legislature,” she recalled. Such colleagues included California State Sen. Jenny Oropeza, a former Long Beach councilwoman who championed a series of public health measures. Oropeza had successfully battled liver cancer in recent years but died while undergoing treatment for an abdominal blood clot.
Bontá’s network of contacts led to her appointment as California director of Health Services in the administration of Gov. Gray Davis. “I spent four and a half years in the most incredible position imaginable,” she said, recalling progress made in the areas of Medicaid fraud and expanding by one million the number of children enrolled in the state’s Healthy Families program. The department responded to the 9/11 attacks by developing systems related to protection of first responders and formulated bioterrorism-related strategies. “I ran the world’s largest tobacco media campaign ever–$45 million. The largest teen pregnancy media campaign ever,” she said.
Along with some other department heads, she chose to resign after Gov. Davis was recalled and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was voted into office. Four days later, she received a call from Kaiser Permanente, which created the position of vice president of public affairs for her. At Kaiser Permanente Southern California, she has overseen communications, media contacts, community relations, government relations, public policy and Kaiser’s $600 million yearly contributions in Southern California in charity care and community benefit. In addition to its grantmaking functions, the giving program includes, among other projects, the organization of free surgery days where doctors and nurses volunteer their services and Kaiser covers hospital and surgical costs to expedite care for the indigent who receive their primary care at a community health center.
Dr. Bontá is a director of The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Archstone Foundation. She is also a former chair of the executive committee of the board of the American Public Health Association and former chair of the California Women’s Law Center. She has served as a City of Los Angeles Fire Commissioner and, since 2007, as a director of the private sector American States Water Co., based in San Dimas, CA. Although planning to spend more time in Northern California as the TCWF head, Bontá and her husband, who is a consultant to physician groups and managed care practices, maintain a home in the Carthay Circle area of Los Angeles. They have three grown children, who she describes as “two attorneys and a future commercial real estate tycoon.” They also have two grandchildren.
“In all of my career, I’ve had elements of what foundations do as part of my job, and I’ve been on the end of actually applying for grants,” she said. “In the City of Long Beach, over 90 percent of the funding came from our grant applications. At the state, certainly, we gave out grants to many, many agencies, and at Kaiser there has been a significant number of grantee partnerships. “But at the core of who I am,” she added, “is a nurse wanting to create capacity for people to have all their potential met and all their abilities expanded. I firmly believe that the concept of wellness is inclusive of prevention, health education and healthy … behaviors.”
  What part of your deep experience in government, nonprofits and philanthropy do you expect to draw on most during the initial stage of your tenure at The California Wellness Foundation? DB:I know a lot of the agencies here; I’ve had a 35-year history with California. TCWF has such a fantastic reputation and is right on track in helping. … I want to carry on in the greatest traditions of philanthropy and be cognizant of the opportunities to work with families and with the board and staff to decide what will be the next steps. My first year at TCWF will be one of listening and learning followed by 2013 as a year of strategic planning. What recent trends have interested you in U.S. philanthropy? DB: The trend in recent years has been place-based…having communities that meet a defined geography or coalition of partners [criteria] apply for specific programs [for their area]. … The California Community Foundation and The California Endowment have done place-based funding. TCWF has made a strategic decision to fund core operations which have sustained agencies in these difficult economic times.
What would you like to see happen about the Foundation Center finding that–with a few notable exceptions that include the Wellness Foundation–U.S. philanthropy targets only one percent of its giving to help the U.S. Latino community? That comes to a penny out of each giving dollar. DB: A penny out of a dollar shows that we have more work to do. I know that The California Wellness Foundation has been a shining star in focusing on assistance targeted to all populations and particularly has led in services to Latinos. I’m proud of the work that it has done on border health and farmworker-related and environmental-related issues. We need to be open to understanding community needs and be open to new funding opportunities. A person from Oaxaca in the Pico-Union area [of Los Angeles] has needs that are different from someone from El Salvador now living in Northern California.
Health agencies are struggling with creating more health equity and decreasing health disparities. Research has indicated that having a practitioner who speaks your language and understands your culture will increase the adherence of the patient to the treatment plan. It is not sufficient to write a prescription for an asthma medication while ignoring that the patient might not be able to afford filling the prescription or continuing the medication due to costs. How to get there? DB: I just finished my term on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health Advisory committee. We were concentrating on health reform and making recommendations on how to ensure that the issues of minority communities are part of the reform measures. This includes such issues as access to culturally appropriate health care providers with linguistic skills and cultural competence to assist in reducing barriers to care.
I remember when the Long Beach Police were having difficulties working with domestic violence cases. We forged partnerships to have public health nurses who were making home visits to families for immunizations used in a new way. The nurses were able to gain the confidence of families such that the women in the community would discuss their struggles with domestic violence. The nurses in turn could encourage the women to report offenses to the female police officers and to seek shelter if necessary. This is an example of government and community working together in a different manner to increase access to services.
How can U.S. philanthropy better serve Latinos? DB: HIP has done a fantastic job. Seeing what Diana [Campoamor, the president of HIP] has done in working with communities and bringing to everyone’s attention the difficulties that Latinos face and the strengths that Latino communities have. Because it’s not only about the problems, as America Bracho [founder and director of Latino Health Access, based in Santa Ana, CA] has shown with the promotoras. The strength of the Latino community is enhanced by the ability of the philanthropic world, especially HIP, to showcase best practices and effective community interventions for families in need.
Pennies! There should be a lot more than coins in helping the [Latino] population. Philanthropy should also join in learning more about the community to see what works well. I visited a Miami medical school where nursing and social work students go together with medical students into a Miami community that is predominantly Latino. The students work as a team to follow a family. They are learning how the social determinants of health such as the loss of a job, or taking care of the abuelita, who is now blind, has an impact on that family remaining healthy. They have professors working through Florida International University overseeing them. I’m looking forward to seeing innovative work that is being attempted in communities that has had positive results.
Have you been involved in mitigating disparities in the area of the rapidly expanding Latino aging population? DB: I think philanthropy needs to think a little bit differently in terms of what will work for aging Latinos. Latino families will do everything to not put their relatives in a nursing home. My husband and I were at one point looking at long-term care, and our children were saying, “No, no! We’ll take care of you just like you took care of Nana.” That may not be a realistic assessment of the many aspects of taking care of an elderly relative who may experience the need for 24-hour nursing assistance that is difficult for working family members to provide.
The Archstone Foundation has a village concept initiative of bringing in services to where people live. It allows for more seniors to age in place by getting assistance for prepaid services to keep them in their home. This might include repairs of their roof of their home. This concept may work better in a more affuent community that has had a lifetime experience of insurance premiums and the financial means to save for a rainy day. How could it be altered as a concept for a community of first generation Latinos to partake? Philanthropy can fund innovations and attempts to see what works best and evaluate whether it can be replicated in other communities.
My mom passed away at 91, and seeing her struggle in the last years of her life but still remaining very vibrant made me think about how we can help people in old age to die with dignity. People don’t talk about it. We need to be looking at ways to support families to become aware of palliative care resources. Is there anything else you would like to say? DB: I am particularly looking forward to ways in which we can train health professionals in a manner that keeps them patient-centered and focused on prevention and wellness. Health reform has placed greater demands on our needs for a new generation of primary care providers who can practice in a variety of health settings. The communities’ needs are not being met by our enrollments in professional schools in the health field and we need to increase recruitment and retention of young students who reflect the communities that they will serve.