Dr. Eric Whitaker leaving University of Chicago Medicine
President Barack Obama's pal says he's not taking government post
Dr. Eric Whitaker, shown in 2009, head of the University of Chicago’s Urban Health Initiative, said he is leaving the hospital system to pursue opportunities in the private sector. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / February 24, 2009)
His decision was to be announced Thursday morning in a memo to the health system's employees.
Whitaker, 47, joined the hospital system in late 2007 as its executive vice president of strategic affiliations and associate dean of community-based research. He also serves as the top official for the hospital's Urban Health Initiative, an outreach program launched by Michelle Obama before she became first lady.
Whitaker and the university's executive vice president for medical affairs, Dr. Kenneth Polonsky, said in separate interviews Wednesday that Whitaker made the decision to step down and that the departure was amicable.
Whitaker plans to leave the position March 31 after he helps recruit his replacement. He vowed to continue his involvement with the Urban Health Initiative by accepting a seat on its advisory board.
He declined to detail his next step, but he pre-emptively tamped down any speculation that he would take a post with the Obama administration.
"I will not be in the government. I am proud of the work I've done in the past, but no," Whitaker said. "Chicago is my home, and as I like to say: I'm a South Sider by birth and by choice. I plan to stay here working on innovating things as it relates to public health."
He said he's "an entrepreneur at heart" who needs a new challenge after spending five years with the U. of C.
During his tenure, Whitaker expanded the Urban Health Initiative, a 7-year-old program that aims to connect South Side patients with primary care doctors and health clinics for care rather than relying on hospital emergency departments.
The model was novel at the time but since has been adopted across the country by hospital systems and insurers, including some government-sponsored plans like Medicaid in Illinois.
A key component of the initiative is patient outreach that's conducted in the hospital's emergency department. A patient who arrives with a minor ailment or routine illness, for example, will be treated and then scheduled to follow up with a physician at one of more than 30 health clinics on the South Side.
Progress has been slow but steady. In 2011, 40 percent of 2,687 patients who were scheduled for appointments in such clinics kept them. That compares with 34 percent of 2,612 patients in 2005, the first year of the program.
Whitaker also led a push to expand the number of participating clinics to more than 30, up from 18 when he started. That figure includes five hospitals.
The program's success has not come without controversy. During Whitaker's tenure, the hospital came under scrutiny from doctors and patient advocacy groups for its plan to divert patients from the ER. Critics viewed the initiative as a thinly veiled effort to boost profits by referring poor patients elsewhere while keeping those with more lucrative commercial health insurance.
Those concerns have mostly disappeared, however, as the model has become more widely adopted.
Polonsky credited Whitaker with helping raise the profile of the program, both through his leadership and his "visibility," a nod to his close relationship with the president.
"He's a visionary person, he's imaginative and he lives in and understands the needs of this community," Polonsky said. Losing him "is definitely a loss, but the program is not going to fall apart, largely because of the people he's put in place around him."
Before his tenure at U. of C. Medicine, Whitaker served for four years as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Despite being known nationally for a number of years, Whitaker's profile was boosted when his basketball buddy was elected president in 2008.
Whitaker, who met Obama when both were graduate students at Harvard University, was a fixture on the campaign trial in 2008, and remains part of the president's inner circle.
While some aspects of the Urban Health Initiative can be found in Obama's 2010 health care overhaul law, Whitaker downplayed his influence on the president.
"My only job with President Obama is to play basketball with him and be his friend," Whitaker said. "He has more than enough experts and he has access to some of the best minds in the country, and in my view, I'm not one of those."
He's also been among the highest paid at U. of C. Medicine, with total compensation of $784,243 in fiscal year 2010, up from $670,833 in 2009, according to IRS filings. Whitaker also is the beneficiary of a home loan through the hospital system; he still owes a little more than $300,000 on the loan, which was originally $400,000.
Both Whitaker and the hospital system said he plans to repay the loan in full.