Monday, August 25, 2008

Michelle Obama and Chicago's Nonprofit Hospital

I'm telling you, as soon as the nonprofit college football season starts I will have nothing else to say about the "silly season."  But today's Washington Post has a potentially scandalous piece describing how the University of Chicago and Michelle Obama came up with a plan to steer poor patients away from the well-endowed hospital's emergency room and instead to local health clinics.  I call the article "potentially scandalous" because of its headline, primarily.  It begins with this enticing tidbit:

A few years ago, executives at the prestigious University of Chicago Medical Center were concerned that an increasing number of patients were arriving at their emergency room with what the executives considered to be non-urgent complaints. The visits were costly to the hospital, and many of the patients, coming from the surrounding South Side neighborhood, were poor and uninsured. Michelle Obama, an executive at the medical center, launched an innovative program to steer the patients to existing neighborhood clinics to deal with their health needs. That effort, in time, inspired a broader program the hospital now calls its Urban Health Initiative. To ensure community support, Michelle Obama and others in late 2006 recommended that the hospital hire the firm of David Axelrod, who a few months later became the chief strategist for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

If that's all you read, you might think the story is about a rich university hospital that shuns poor people.  Later, though, the article quotes a hospital executive and others to the effect that the use of an nonprofit emergency room for legitimate, but non-emergency medical care wastes charitable resources; the university's plan might very result in more health care for the poor.    Still, as anybody who has ever lived in Chicago knows, UC has a reputation as an unwelcome, mostly white, oasis in the middle of a economically arid place.  The article does a good job of discussing these perceptions and thus serves as a useful discussion piece for a nonprofit clinic or class -- particularly on the topic of how public relations impacts tax exemption law.


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