Politics & Policy

Health Care, Chicago Style

President Obama and Eric Whitaker golf in 2009.
A questionable grant to a questionable Obama associate’s group.

This week the Department of Health and Human Services allocated a $5.9 million grant to Chicago’s Urban Health Initiative. This is the not-for-profit program, run by the University of Chicago Medical Center, at which Michelle Obama was once an executive, and which is now run by one of President Obama’s closest confidants, Eric Whitaker. The grant comes from money allocated by the president’s health-care-reform initiative to fund innovative and cost-cutting solutions, part of the “We Can’t Wait” executive-branch stimulus initiative.

Whitaker has a checkered past, with a variety of controversies surrounding his work at the University of Chicago’s hospitals and Illinois’s health department, and it’s only gotten worse recently: Edward Klein, author of The Amateur, claims that Reverend Jeremiah Wright fingered Whitaker as an Obama surrogate who offered $150,000 for the pastor to lie low during the 2008 campaign.

If we’re to believe Klein’s claims that he has tapes of Reverend Wright saying that Whitaker offered him hush money, then the only question is whether Wright’s account can be trusted. He might appear unreliable, except that he seems to have little reason otherwise to slander Whitaker, another prominent member of Chicago’s black community. (Wright has invited Whitaker to speak at his church’s events.) Klein’s book explains that Obama chose Whitaker as his fixer for the Wright problem; he was tasked with trying to restrain Wright and on one occasion with finding a replacement preacher for an Obama campaign event.

#ad#If Klein’s and Wright’s claim about the proffered bribe is true, it’s a disturbing, and undeniable, statement about the company Obama keeps. It’s almost impossible to overstate how close Whitaker is to the president. He’s been friends with Obama since their time together in the early 1990s at Harvard (where Obama earned a degree in law and Whitaker in public health), and has joined the first family on every single one of their August and Christmas vacations since 2008. He’s also been involved in official capacities with the Obama campaign: He and his wife, Cheryl, hosted a Chicago fundraiser for the president in January.

This is hardly the first allegation of shady conduct involving Whitaker. In 2010, his work as chief of the Illinois Department of Public Health was the subject of a federal probe. Convicted felon Tony Rezko, on Obama’s recommendation, hired Whitaker in 2003 to run the department. During his time there, he developed a wide range of unorthodox outreach initiatives, which he defended as “national models for increasing awareness and preparedness planning for minority populations.”

In particular, he allocated $1.2 million to the Let’s Talk, Let’s Test Foundation, a group that the Chicago Sun-Times discovered was notorious for improperly awarding staff bonuses and perks such as college-football tickets. Whitaker defended the decision at the time by claiming that “if you look over the landscape of black-directed HIV organizations, there was no obvious alternative.”

In the end, the investigation confirmed one misuse of state funds for which Whitaker was responsible: A $45,000 grant to an AIDS-awareness group called Working for Togetherness, which used the money to buy and “soup up” a 2003 Hummer H2 to promote instant HIV/AIDS testing in Chicago. The investigation confirmed that this was a misuse of state funds, but that didn’t stop Whitaker’s department from continuing to issue tens of thousands of dollars in grants to the same group. Despite the state’s finding, and the fact that the group agreed to return about half of the grant, Whitaker’s spokesman at the time claimed “the fancy car worked.”

Whitaker was also closely involved, though ultimately not at fault, in the Senate-seat-selling Blagojevich scandal. According to the president’s own report on the issue, Blagojevich’s deputy governor contacted Whitaker in early November 2008 to ask “who spoke for the president-elect” on the question of who should be appointed. Whitaker then went to Obama, who said he had no interest in the issue — thereby insulating himself from the scandal. But it’s notable that, in his attempt to gather information to perpetrate his crimes, Blagojevich chose to go to Whitaker, who — unlike Obama, who still occupied the seat in question — had no formal role to play in the Senate appointment.

#page#The Urban Health Initiative itself is a microcosm of Obama’s small and incestuous corner of Chicago’s elite politics: Michelle Obama was an executive at U of C’s hospitals and helped develop the program; one senior Obama adviser, Valerie Jarrett, approved the program as the chairman of the hospital system’s board; top Obama adviser David Axelrod’s communications firm was hired to promote the program; and now Whitaker, one of Obama’s best friends, runs it.

As to the recent grant, HHS maintains that the White House had no involvement in the decision to allocate such grants, but the odds that UHI was merely a lucky, coincidental recipient seem long indeed — out of 3,000-odd applications, just 26 awards were made. Six million dollars also might be chump change for the federal government, but it isn’t for Whitaker’s program, which had a budget of $6 million for all of 2010.

#ad#The program that Whitaker runs redirects patients in need of everyday care away from the University of Chicago’s medical centers to alternative providers like community health centers. In theory, the program actually improves their care by sending them to centers in their own community where they can be connected with social services, while providing the same care more cheaply than the university hospital (so much for any preferential option for the poor).

But a panoply of medical trade groups criticized the program’s fundamental aim, with one noting that it “came dangerously close to patient dumping” — that is, hospitals rejecting uninsured or unprofitable patients. The program does attack a source of cost inflation: A lot of health-care spending is indeed wasted when ordinary services are provided at top hospitals, especially their emergency rooms, rather than at outpatient facilities or community health centers. It may or may not work, but it is certainly directly in line with the president’s vision of health-care reform: taking away choice and discretion from doctors and patients in order to cut costs.

Whatever the merits of the HHS grant or Whitaker’s group, it’s worth noting two things: Whitaker’s past makes his iniative a questionable recipient of the federal government’s support, and him a problematic beneficiary of the president’s close companionship.

— Patrick Brennan is a 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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