In October, 2010, we noted questions about how Dr Stephen Ondra got to be a Senior Policy Adviser for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. A veteran who was a neurosurgery professor at Northwestern University, Dr Ondra had received millions of dollars in royalties from device manufacturer Medtronic, whose CEO supported his appointment to the government position (see this post). As soon as he was appointed, he publicly opposed a nominee for US Surgeon General who had been critical of the medical device industry, and its financial ties to doctors.
After going to Washington, Dr Ondra apparently also served in the Executive Office of the President, in the White House, but returned to Northwestern University in 2012. However, he did not stay there for long.
This month, a post on Forbes indicated he is moving on again, and back to the corporate side of health care.
the nation’s fourth-largest health insurance company is naming a key former health advisor to President Obama as its top doctor.
Dr. Stephen Ondra, will become senior vice president and chief medical officer at Health Care Service Corp., the Chicago-based parent company of Blue Cross plans in Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The plan has more than 13 million health plan members and is looking to grow even more, announcing last year a proposed partnership with the Blue Cross plan in Montana.
Health Care Service Corp is a mutual insurance company, that is, a company owned by its policy-holders rather than stock holders. However, that does apparently not make it any more ascetic than a typical for-profit insurance company, at least in terms of generosity towards its top hired executives. As Crain's Chicago Business reported in 2012,
New federal regulations intended to force health insurers to spend less on administration didn't keep the parent of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Illinois from paying CEO Patricia Hemingway Hall more than $12.9 million in 2011, a 61 percent raise.
The Health Care Service Corp. chief executive's total compensation last year dwarfed the $8 million she received in 2010, according to a filing with the Illinois Department of Insurance. The 2011 increase was fueled by an $11.8 million bonus, which was 69 percent above her 2010 bonus of $7 million.
Ms. Hall wasn't alone in getting a big raise at Health Care Service, whose insurance business booked net income of more than $1 billion in 2011, for the second straight year.
The 10 highest-paid executives at the Chicago-based mutual company — which operates Blue Cross plans in Illinois and three other states — earned a collective $41.7 million, 65 percent more than the $25.3 million they were paid in 2010.
If Dr Ondra's new position puts him among the latter group of executives, he too stands to make millions a year.
So to recap Dr Ondra's career so far, in 2010 he was a medical school professor who had earned millions in royalties from Medtronic. He then went to top leadership positions in the US Veterans Department and Executive Office of the President. He returned briefly to Northwestern University, only to leave again for a top executive position in for-profit insurance company Health Care Service Corp, where he is likely to make millions more.
Thus Dr Ondra is our latest interesting example of the "revolving door" phenomenon in health care. He started as an erstwhile academic physician but with a very major financial relationship with a medical device company. He then went through the door the first time into the US government, and then a second time from the government to a for-profit insurance company, with just a brief stop-over in academia.
By the way, it appears that all of this is quite legal. It does again raise questions about whether health care leaders in government with previous relationships with industry might still feel undue sympathy to the interests of industry, as might government leaders who can expect future jobs in industry.
Moreover, this case, like previous cases we have discussed, indicates how leadership in academic health care, corporate health care, and the government tend to blend together. Leaders of one type of organization have more and more in common with leaders of the other types of organizations than they do with their lesser ranked colleagues, and certainly than with other health care constituencies. So the more the revolving door revolves, the more we wonder about the corporatism of health care, about how health care seems to be increasingly run by an amorphous group of academic/ corporate/ government leaders whose loyalties may be more to each other than to academic and professional values, patients' and the public's health, and government of, by and for the people.