By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
The ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee is seeking information from the nonprofit University of Chicago Medical Center about jobs held by Sen. Barack Obama's wife and one of the senator's best friends.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa on Friday sent the center a letter saying he was "troubled" by recent news reports about the hospital's efforts to steer patients with non-urgent complaints away from the center's emergency room to local clinics. Michelle Obama was a key figure behind the initiative.
The letter, which Grassley released to the public yesterday, does not directly mention the Democratic presidential nominee, his wife or his campaign. Grassley asked for financial data, board minutes and other documents related to hiring, job promotion, business contracting and care for the poor.
In a response to The Washington Post, the campaign provided a statement. "Michelle Obama has worked at the University of Chicago for nearly a decade, expanding the University's community service programs, and building ties between the Medical Center, community leaders, organizations, and service providers. Her salary was downgraded accordingly when she became a part-time employee and was halted when she took a leave of absence."
The campaign provided statements from third parties defending the hospital's record on caring for the poor. A statement from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) said: "Compared to other hospitals in Illinois, University of Chicago Medical Center clearly provides care to a great number of low income patients. And you can see that in the large number of Medicaid patients the hospital serves."
The medical center said in a statement yesterday that it was working on a response to the letter.
"We have received Senator Grassley's August 29 letter and we are beginning the process of providing thoughtful and thorough answers to his questions," the statement said. "Much of the information he has requested is already a matter of public record and offers evidence of our vigorous pursuit and commitment to our patient care, education, research, and community missions. We are proud of our extraordinary record of charitable contributions."
For years, Grassley has argued that nonprofit hospitals should spend more resources on the poor and be more financially accountable, in return for the millions of dollars they keep each year as a result of their tax-exempt status. Grassley has periodically demanded financial data from selected hospitals and issued reports detailing perceived shortcomings. He has also chaired a Senate hearing on the topic.
In a statement yesterday, Grassley said the Chicago medical center "appears to be culling the least profitable patients from its emergency room."
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, said in a statement: "Tax-exempt hospitals absolutely should be expected to provide charitable care, but many facilities can be overwhelmed by the call for such care, particularly when they serve local low-income populations that may be less healthy, Medicaid-dependent, or entirely uninsured."
Grassley's letter requested that the center describe its policy governing "political activity," including political fundraising. It asked whether the center had a written conflict-of-interest policy and, if so, how it is monitored and enforced. The medical center has numerous ties to Obama's associates, fundraisers and political advisers.
On Aug. 22, The Post published an article detailing those ties and examining the center's programs for the poor and uninsured.
In his letter, Grassley asked the center how it selected and set the salaries for two senior management positions: executive vice president and vice president of community and external relations. The current executive vice president is Eric Whitaker, a close friend of Obama's. The current vice president of community and external relations is Obama's wife, Michelle. She has been on leave from her job, which paid up to $317,000 a year, since January.
Grassley's letter sought details about how the center decided how much free and discounted care it would provide to the poor. He asked for board minutes on the center's South Side Health Collaborative, which was started by Michelle Obama, and its broader Urban Health Initiative, now headed by Whitaker. Both projects seek to connect low-income residents of Chicago's South Side with neighborhood health clinics, so they can receive regular checkups. The effort also is designed to lower the number of people seeking non-urgent care at the center's emergency room.
The letter also asked the center for details on its payments to public relations firms and documentation on how they were selected. In 2006, the center retained ASK Public Strategies to help build support for the Urban Health Initiative. ASK is co-owned by Obama's chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod.
Grassley asked the center to respond in full by Sept. 30.
A longer version of this article is available athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/washingtonpostinvestigations.