The Department of Health and Human Services last week announced it had awarded a $5.9 million grant to a University of Chicago Medical Center program tied to Michelle Obama and run by Eric Whitaker, one of President Obama’s closest friends.
The Urban Health Initiative, which received the award, was originally based on a smaller program launched during the last decade by Michelle Obama, who was an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center before she departed to become first lady. The UHI is headed up by Obama basketball and golf buddy Whitaker, who has known the president since Obama’s days in law school and who also vacations with the first family.
Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett also has ties to the UHI. Until resigning to go work at the White House, Jarrett was Chairman of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees. And in 2007, a PR firm run by former senior White House adviser and Obama political guru David Axelrod provided provided public relations strategy advice to the UHI, according to the Washington Post.
There is no specific evidence that any of those linked to the Obamas, or the Obamas themselves, influenced the HHS decision to grant the funding to the UHI. But the large award raises questions about appearance, given the number of Obama associates connected to the program and the involvement of the first lady with its founding.
The UHI won out over lots of competition. According to HHS, some 3,000 applications were received for a share on the $1 billion in 3-year grants available. Only 26 programs were included in the first batch of awards doled out.
An HHS spokesperson said that while “final determinations” were made by the HHS’s CMS Innovation Center Director, objective standards were used in selecting the awards and the White House was not “in any way” involved in the selection of grantees.
“Applications that met the basic eligibility requirements underwent a competitive, objective review,” the spokesperson said. “Independent health care expert review panels from outside government and staff from all across the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed the applications for how well they met the criteria outlined in the grant solicitation, and made recommendations regarding funding . . . scoring was conducted by an independent panel of content experts that was organized by an experienced contractor.”
The awards have been politicized by the administration, which is touting them as part of its “We Can’t Wait” initiative to create jobs by executive action while the White House “waits” for the Republican-led House to act. The Innovation Center was established under Obamacare.
The Urban Health Initiative was founded to help link low-income patients to health providers in their communities.
According to HHS, UHI received the grant to help it, in partnership with other groups, increase patients’ access to health resources by developing an electronic database of health providers that links to electronic health records maintained by “local safety net providers.”
Last week’s award is not the first time money directed toward the UHI has raised red flags. In September, The Daily Caller reported that the private philanthropy of billionaire Obama supporter and donor George Kaiser had donated $10,000 to the UHI during 2009, the same year Kaiser secured the now-infamous $535 million government loan guarantee to failed solar panel maker Solyndra.