By Abdon Pallasch
Sun-Times Political Reporter
CHICAGO--President Obama's health care law will make a lot of people on Chicago's South Side and other "underserved" areas healthier, said the president's close friend Dr. Eric Whitaker, who has talked health policy with Obama since the two were grad students at Harvard in the early 90s.
"This new legislation will have a positive impact on this nation, on Chicagoans, and, indeed, on those I have worked with and for in underserved populations on Chicago's South Side," Whitaker said today. "It will benefit everyone in this room, all of us," he told diners at the City Club of Chicago.
For one thing, the new law gives parents peace of mind, he said: "We don't need to worry about our kids, especially those who have chronic illnesses, being denied coverage when they're older, and we can even choose to keep our kids on our insurance policies now until they're 26, and that should be a 'Hallelujah' in this crowd right now," Whitaker told this mostly high-end audience.
Whitaker was exchanging e-mails with the president right up until the night before the vote on the health care legislation. He was there for Obama's address to the joint session of Congress urging them to pass health care reform. That was the night a South Carolina congressman challenged Obama's contention that the law would not cover illegal immigrants.
"I heard Rep. Joe Wilson shout, 'You lie' and, you know, we were going to try to deal with that South Side style," Whitaker said as the room erupted in laughter. "I was sitting in the first lady's box, and I decided to comport myself in a little different manner."
Whitaker testified in favor of national health insurance twice before Congress in 1991 when he was national president of the American Medical Students Association. Like some other of Obama's close friends in Chicago, Whitaker has attracted a few controversies over the years, and he defended himself today.
Whitaker heads up the Urban Health Initiative at the University of Chicago Hospital, where Michelle Obama recruited Whitaker to be a partner in what he described as an innovative program to divert people with "non-urgent" ailments away from the hospital's emergency room to neighborhood clinics where they can be treated at one-tenth the cost to them or taxpayers and can develop long-term relationships with doctors to treat their chronic conditions.
Critics called that "patient-dumping."
"Those who accuse hospitals of 'patient-dumping' when they direct patients away from the E.R. are too quick to assume the worst," Whitaker said. "These critics miss the fundamental point that there are a host of reasons why it's good health and fiscal policy to re-direct patients way from hospital emergency rooms."
Whitaker introduced mutual friends of his and the presidents in the audience, including the successor to Obama's controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
"I also want to recognize my pastor from a church you all have never heard of, Otis Moss from Trinity United Church of Christ," Whitaker said to laughter and applause.
"Earlier this year, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was present at a small session where we had Bill Gates ... and other technology heavyweights. ... They talked about health care technology that could really make a difference in improving health in developing countries," Whitaker said. "I literally raised my hands and said, developing countries? How 'bout doing this work on the South Side of Chicago?"
Based on a recommendation from Obama, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich hired Whitaker to be the state's director of Public Health in 2003. Like other major state posts in those days, it was screened by Tony Rezko, who has since been convicted of influence-peddling.
A federal grand jury is investigating the department's funding of several faith-based initiatives that Whitaker helped start, though, as Whitaker emphasized today, "The organizations the subpoenas were about -- they received funding in the last month of my tenure at the Illinois Department of Public Health.
One subpoena to the state names Whitaker and three others and asks for "e-mail and other electronic storage accounts" from "January 2007 to present." Nothing indicates Whitaker is a target of the investigation and Whitaker himself said today, "I am not the target of any investigation." He has not received an subpoena; has hired no lawyer and was unaware of the investigation until contacted by the Sun-Times two weeks ago.
Is sending government money to pastors to talk about chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension good public policy? Whitaker said "yes."
"Our work in this particular area was recognized by the [Centers for Disease Control] as being an important innovation for improving the heath of the minority population," Whitaker said. "That's kind of under some controversy as of late, but I stand by the fact that churches on the ground are important actors in the community with ministers who are opinion leaders."
These faith-based initiatives were Whitaker's ideas, not Blagojevich's, Whitaker said.
"It was something I felt strongly about," Whitaker said. "I didn't get any direction. That was part of how I wanted to administer the Public Health Department."