Obama's Lawyer Connected to Controversial Program
Updated 8:35 p.m.
By Joe Stephens
President-elect Barack Obama announced this week that he plans to name Susan Sher to the post of associate counsel to the president, where she will work on legal issues associated with health care policy and provide legal advice to the first lady.
It's a position she won't find unfamiliar: Sher is general counsel and a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center and has been a close friend and mentor to Michelle Obama for many years. They also both worked on medical center initiatives that have become the focus of a Senate Republican's inquiry into whether the nonprofit hospital has been "culling the least profitable patients from its emergency room."
Sher had recruited Michelle Obama for a community relations job at the center, where Obama in time ascended to vice president for external affairs. In that post, she and Sher worked together on the center's efforts to steer patients with non-urgent complaints away from the center's crowded emergency room and into local health clinics.
The program, which grew into a broader initiative, is designed to ensure patients get better and more timely medical care, administrators said. Because many of the patients are poor and uninsured, it also holds out the potential for saving big bucks for the medical center. Sher also played a role in the center's decision to hire a company co-owned by David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, to build community support for the program.
Last August, after The Washington Post published an in-depth examination of the program, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, opened an inquiry into the hospital's practices.
In the fall, the medical center submitted a box of documents to the committee, which staffers continue to review. At this point, the probe appears to be limited largely to reviewing those records and the medical center's written responses to the committee's questions. There's no word on when any conclusions might be forthcoming. But tax-exempt hospitals and their sometimes questionable records when it come to caring for the uninsured have been the subject a long-running crusade by the tenacious Grassley.
The medical center said in a September statement that much of the information Grassley sought was "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."
Sher added Friday that her work at the White House will be restricted to matters unrelated to her work at the medical center.
Posted at 5:45 PM ET on Jan 9, 2009
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