The Ithaca Health Fund: A Unique Bargain

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Tompkins Weekly – April 12, 2010
By Bethany Schroeder

So much about Ithaca and our community support systems is exceptional and, sometimes (dare I say it?), even unique. For example, the Ithaca Health Alliance may be the only organization of its kind in the US: a cooperative model of health services driven by the needs of its membership. In Ithaca, this means large doses of emergency care to address those injuries that accompany an active lifestyle, and preventive care, because a certain amount of prevention is easier to bear than treatment. With the Ithaca Health Fund (“the Fund”), our founders and members created one of the most sustainable health programs in the US. The Fund depends only on the members who use it and is limited only by the decisions the members make.

The concept of the Fund is simple: members pay $100 a year for Ithaca Health Alliance membership. Members are eligible for grants that help to pay for specific injuries, conditions, and illnesses. The members decide which categories of care are eligible. In 1997, when the Ithaca Health Alliance started the Fund, we offered just a dental grant to help in paying for an annual dental cleaning. Today the Fund offers emergency grants for broken bones; treatment of second and third degree burns; emergency stitches; complementary services, such as massage and acupuncture, following an emergency situation; emergency appendectomy; ambulance services; rabies inoculation; root canal; and dental repair or extraction as the result of trauma. Preventive grants were developed in order to encourage preventive care, which practitioners and scientists agree is key to long-term good health. These preventive grant categories include dental exams and cleanings, periodontal exams, eye exams, genito-urinary exams, hearing tests, general medical exams, dental crowns and implants, vasectomy, tubal ligation, and smoking cessation.

Overall, the award of a grant requires just a few considerations: the length of membership, whether a member has accessed the same grant category that year, and whether a member has already reached the maximum grant support for a given year. At $100 per year per member, the Fund necessarily limits how much each member can ask for annually. As a grants and loans program, the Fund addresses basic, common medical problems. A specific portion of a bill is paid for through the program. The only requirement for membership is New York State residency.
Some people become members to show solidarity with the mission of the Ithaca Health Alliance: to facilitate access to health care for all, with a focus on the needs of the un- and underinsured. But people remain members because applying for a grant is easy, membership is affordable, and the system is transparent and fair. Most requests for grants are processed within 1-2 weeks. Overseen by our finance committee and the board of directors, one employee handles all grant requests. He also advocates on behalf of members and is available five days a week to answer questions. In 2009 alone, the Fund delivered on 1,063 grants amounting to nearly $15,000 in grant services.
The Ithaca Health Alliance also has a business membership program, a donated membership program, and a program for providers who support the community by offering 5-10 percent discounts to Ithaca Health Alliance members. Whereas all members must be state residents, grants are made in acceptable categories for care given anywhere in the world.

I have been a member since 2005 and have never applied for a grant. Nonetheless, my membership pays for itself in discount services alone. As a matter of fact, dental and chiropractic discounts more than cover the cost of membership for my whole family.

A full accounting of grant activity is available on our website. For more information about the Fund, visit or call 607-330-1253. And feel free to ask about our other programs, including community and provider grants, education and outreach, and the Ithaca Free Clinic—all of which are open to anyone in the community, with or without Ithaca Health Alliance membership.

Bethany Schroeder is the president of the board of directors of the Ithaca Health Alliance. She can be reached for questions or comments at

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