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Obama Camp Has Many Ties to Wife's Employer

David Axelrod, right, worked for the University of Chicago Medical Center.
David Axelrod, right, worked for the University of Chicago Medical Center. (By Nancy Stone -- Chicago Tribune)
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"We really didn't know what this office would be, so it was really her creation," Sher said. Today, Sher said, Obama's office has grown to include more than 20 staffers and has proved a success at boosting the medical center's image.

The hospital told state regulators it spent $10 million on charity care for the poor in fiscal 2007 -- 1.3 percent of its total hospital expenses, according to an analysis performed for The Washington Post by the bipartisan, nonprofit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. That is below the 2.1 percent average for nonprofit hospitals in Cook County.

As a nonprofit, the University of Chicago Medical Center receives annual tax breaks worth nearly five times as much as it spends on charity care, the analysis found.

Sullivan, spokeswoman for the hospital, said the institution's commitment to the community extends beyond charity care to include research and treatment of a large number of patients covered by Medicaid.

"It's very important to consider the broader benefit that hospitals, and in this case, the University of Chicago hospitals, provide to their communities," said Peters of the hospital association.

Still, Quentin Young, the South Side physician, described the medical center's level of charity spending as "ludicrous." Young, known in Chicago for having been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s personal physician, is chairman of the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group, a Chicago-based nonprofit that advocates health-care reform. Young considered himself an ally of Barack Obama while he was a state legislator.

"That's shameful," Young said of the percentages. "They are arguably, if not defrauding, then at least taking advantage of a public subsidy. We would like to see them give more than the minimum. The need is there."

'World Is Seeping In'

One of Michelle Obama's signature efforts has been working to relieve crowding in the emergency room, the second-busiest in Chicago. It logs 80,000 visits a year.

Backed by a federal grant, Michelle Obama in 2005 launched the South Side Health Collaborative, under which counselors advise patients with noncritical needs that they can receive care elsewhere at a reduced cost. The medical center said in a report that some patients "make frequent visits to the ER because no one in the family has a personal doctor."

"Obama's goal is to connect people in the community with doctors at [community health] centers, to let them know that they can use those physicians on a regular basis instead of ignoring symptoms until they send them to the ER, where care can cost five times more."

The hospital report quotes Michelle Obama as saying, "The world is seeping in, and our salvation will be the success of our partners" at local clinics.

Obama's program has enjoyed favorable news media coverage in Chicago and was eventually expanded into a broader program, the Urban Health Initiative. Under the effort, the hospital has started providing selected clinics with part-time medical personnel and has given $350,000 to enable a nearby clinic to nearly double in size.

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