Dr. Eric Whitaker is a physician-investor. Whitaker has an extensive background in medicine. He received his undergraduate in Chemistry from Grinnell College and a master’s degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health and a medical degree from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He has trained in Primary Care Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He served as the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, where he oversaw an agency with a budget of $450 million with 1,200 employees statewide. His tenure focused on the elimination of health disparities.
Today he has invested in The Zing Health Medicare Advantage Plan founded by doctors for people 65 and older with a line of credit of $150 million. It is a private health insurance company operating in Illinois and Indiana and in 12 counties including Will, Kane, Winnebago, McHenry, Ogle and Boone in Illinois; Allen, Lake and Marion in Indiana and Wayne, Oakland and Genesee in Michigan. We had a chance to talk to Dr. Arnold about his latest medical venture.
How did you become Interested in medicine?
I participated in the program at IIT, The Chance Program, which was for African American doctors when I was 16 years old. The program was a pathway for African American doctors. I was admitted to law school. The Chance program took us to Robert Taylor Homes, then the largest public housing project in the world. They had a health clinic where Black women were lined up to enter. That experience led me to want to be a doctor, but a doctor for communities in a broad way beyond just a doctor/patient relationship. Dr. John Bradley ran that program, he talked about the impact of food insecurity, violence and homelessness had on health. These were elements that impacted the community that has nothing to do with “health.” That stuck with me since high school. I attended St. Rita High School and had to take four buses to get there. I played basketball.
What was your first job in health care?
I worked at Cook County Hospital from 1996 to 2004. I developed the first Black Men’s Clinic at County. It was the first in the country located at 63rd and Woodlawn. We put a barbershop in the clinic, and a job readiness program run by Black male physicians. The program received national attention. Many of the men were uninsured, people came from all over the country to witness the program, but could not replicate it because we had Cook County Hospital funding. Once a week, black male doctors, and black social workers gathered to serve. The program was Project Brotherhood.
How did you become friends with Barack Obama?
I went to the University of Chicago for Medicine and Harvard for Public Health. We were students at Harvard at the same time. We played basketball together. That was the beginning of our friendship and then I learned he was coming to Chicago.
What did your job entail as the Executive Director of State of Illinois Public Health?
I was responsible for the health of 12.5 million people at that time. I was in charge of life matters from birth certificates to death records. I was responsible for the regulation of hospitals and nursing homes, and health preparedness. Our health system was responsible for pandemics also, like the flu.
What is ZING Health?
A Medicare Advantage health plan, like Blue Cross/Blue Shield and United Health Care. The difference is we were founded by two black doctors, interested in black/brown senior citizens. We are interested in the disparities of health care. When we look at the data, health outcomes are far worse for Black and Brown people than their white counterparts. We wanted to share the collective experience of the team. We are dealing with patients on Medicare. We thought we could bring a better product to the marketplace. We are not just health insurance. The founding doctors have practiced medicine. We encourage our members to see a private physician. We pay attention to social determinants of health; we don’t just coordinate health. We pay for dental, hearing aids, eyeglasses, food, transportation for pharmacies, and office visits. Our pricing is lower than most.
What is your advice on the COVID vaccine?
We believe in people being vaccinated. In my career, I have had the challenge with the flu shot. People should take advantage of being vaccinated.
What have you been doing in this COVID moment?
My focus has been trying to build a company, to have our company available for economic empowerment. We have 55 employees. 80% of our members are black and/or brown.
Who would you most like to dine with?
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- A G. Gaston (a businessman in Alabama). Gaston was a man without formal education but tremendously smart with impact.
- My mother (deceased). My mother lived to see Barack become President. She had a vision for her son. Her contribution was raising three strong black men who married and had their own families. I have celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary. I would want her to know that her vision happened with her sons.
What the latest book you’ve read?
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
What are the must-haves in life for you?
Friendship and control of my time. At this point in my life, I am unemployable for somebody else. My general mission orientation keeps you getting up.
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March 29, 2021 at 08:05AM