Eric Whitaker, M.D.- From Influences to Influencer

MHE Publication, MHE January 2021, Volume 31, Issue 1

Eric Whitaker, M.D., credits influences in high school and medical school with his success. Now he wants to turn his new Medicare Advantage plan, Zing Health, into a training ground for Black and Latino health insurance executives — and has his sights set on unicorn status.

Eric Whitaker, M.D., is a nationally recognized authority on public health and an expert in the health issues of African American communities, and he is using his influence and knowledge to lead Zing Health, a physician-led Medicare Advantage HMO plan that helps underserved seniors.

An internal medicine physician by training, Whitaker has had a carer that includes running the Illinois Department of Public Health and founding the investment firm TWG Partners. He also is a friend of former President Barack Obama. Whitaker was a student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health when he met Obama, who was a student at the university’s law school. “I actually didn’t know his name until I saw his name in a Boston newspaper as the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review and realized that though we were in Boston, we both had a connection to Chicago,” says Whitaker.

Over time, his relationship with both Barack and Michelle Obama opened his eyes to the immense possibilities in the future. Whitaker knew he wanted to do all he could to make a difference.

That was a catalyst for forming Zing Health, which he started in 2019 along with Kenneth Alleyne, M.D., FAAOS, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon. The company, which got its start in the innovation lab at the American Medical Association, markets Medicare Advantage plans to underserved communities, with a focus on Black and Latino communities. The company has branched out from its home base in Chicago and Cook County and is now marketing plans in Indiana and Michigan.

“Whereas a lot of insurance companies run away from diverse populations, we’re running toward them because we’re giving our experience to vulnerable populations,” Whitaker says. “Even with Medicare Part D, we focus on the low-income segment of that population. We feel we have a unique experience to deliver stellar health outcomes for these underserved populations.”

Early influences

Whitaker, 55, was the middle of three boys raised by his mother, Charlotte, a nurse administrator and head nurse at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital, now closed and demolished. She graduated from the hospital’s nursing school, which at the time was one of only two nursing schools in the city that accepted Blacks. “In another age, she would have been a physician, but that path wasn’t open to her,” Whitaker says.

Whitaker grew up in Morgan Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and attended St. Rita of Cascia High School, taking four buses to get there each day. “I got a basketball scholarship to go there, but I tested into the top honors class, though they didn’t care,” he says. “They just wanted me to play basketball.”

Whitaker’s mother used to joke that she would whisper in her boys’ ears that they should become doctors. “I was the only one who listened to her,” he laughs. Whitaker says the experience that led to him becoming a physician occurred during his junior year in high school.

“I was enrolled in this program at the Illinois Institute of Technology called CHAMPS (Chicago Area Health and Medical Careers Program), which aimed to identify minorities who were good in sciences and expose them to the health professions,” he says. “In CHAMPS, I saw my first African American doctor — and that was an inspiration — and I learned the importance of role models. It changed my life.”

During that time, Whitaker also learned about what everyone in healthcare is now calling the social determinants of health. “There was a little clinic, and there were pregnant women lined up outside the door,” he says. “There’s this thought that poor people don’t want healthcare, and here I saw with my own eyes that folks were out in the sun waiting to be seen in what I consider inhumane conditions. That image has rested in my mind to this day and really has been a driver for how I’ve approached my career. I knew I wanted to be a physician, but I wanted to be a physician for communities and populations.”

Whitaker went on to major in chemistry at Grinnell College in Iowa and then earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and master’s in public health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

While in medical school, Whitaker took a break from his studies to devote time to being president of the American Medical Student Association, a group that represents approximately 30,000 medical students around the country. That experience introduced him to the busy intersection of healthcare and politics — and to a cadre of future healthcare leaders. “I ended up testifying in front of Congress twice,” he says. “The people that I met are now running institutions, hospitals, foundations, government — they’re all over the place. It’s been a powerful network of folks that I’ve been able to collaborate and work with to improve healthcare for vulnerable populations.”

A mentor recommended that he do his residency at San Francisco General Hospital (now Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center) because he could make a difference there during the HIV/AIDs epidemic. In the early ’90s, the epidemic’s disproportionate effect on African Americans was becoming apparent. “One of the things that I saw was that in the Black community, HIV was growing and spreading, yet a lot of the community was really ignoring it and not being proactive about preventing HIV spread,” he says.

Committed to a cause

Whitaker has spent most of his career in Chicago — and he makes a point of mentioning that he lives on the South Side today by choice. He worked first with Cook County Health’s Woodlawn Health Center, which was just a few blocks from the University of Chicago. Whitaker then started Project Brotherhood, which encouraged Black men to use community healthcare services. The project included a fatherhood and rites of passage program. “It was really about men accepting their responsibilities to go along with the rights they think they have as men,” says Whitaker. To erase the stigma associated with going to the doctor, Whitaker and his colleagues added a barbershop in the clinic.

Whitaker credits the work he did setting up Project Brotherhood with leading to his appointment as Illinois state health commissioner in 2003, a post he held for four years. “I’d say it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life,” Whitaker says, “because it’s one thing to have a lot of ideas, (but) it’s another to be able to change a policy that impacts millions of people.” As state health commissioner, he worked on HIV prevention as well as reducing the burden of breast cancer among the state’s Black women and increasing preparedness for bioterrorism and a flu pandemic.

During the next chapter of his career, Whitaker returned to the South Side where he served as executive vice president for strategic affiliations and associate dean for community-based research at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

In 2018, he helped establish the Creating Pathways and Access for Student Success (CPASS) Foundation. Like CHAMPS before it, CPASS offers students, through its SMASH Academy, a five-week experience on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, exposing them to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program of study and fostering interest in both health professions and technology.

Whitaker’s wife, Cheryl, is also a physician. When they aren’t working (and before the COVID-19 pandemic), the Whitakers enjoyed eating out and traveling, often accompanying the Obamas on vacations to Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii. They have two teenage children, Caleb and Caitlin. “Cheryl has been on a lot of the journey with me — training at the same hospitals — and did a lot of the same things,” Whitaker says.

The road to Zing

Whitaker had been involved in several businesses prior to Zing. “I consulted with a healthcare company, and when that owner sold that business, he said he enjoyed working with me and wanted to find something we could work on together,” Whitaker says. “We looked at a lot of options and decided to get into the Medicare Part D business. It was based on our skill sets.”

The first insurance company he founded was Symphonix Health Holdings, which was sold to United Healthcare; his second was
NextLevel Health, which he co-founded with his wife, who was CEO and chair of the board. NextLevel Health sold its assets to Centene Corporation last year.

With Zing Health, Whitaker says he’s working against a health insurance system that is often complicated to navigate and access, especially for minorities in low socioeconomic communities. Zing Health uses a community-based approach oriented toward the social determinants of health to keep individuals and communities healthy. In May, Newlight Partners, a private investment firm in New York, announced that it had taken a $150 million equity position in Zing. Newlight Partners has also invested in Oak Street Health, the primary care business headquartered in Chicago that that went public in May.

Zing Health started selling coverage two years ago in Cook County and subsequently expanded to six additional counties in Illinois, three in Indiana and three in Wisconsin, and has plans for more expansion in Michigan.

“What is unique about our approach is that our company is really designed to be mindful of social determinants of health,” says Whitaker.

One of Whitaker’s hopes for Zing Health is that it becomes a training ground for African American and Latino executives in the health insurance industry so that they can move on and rise to positions of influence in the industry.

Another one of Whitaker’s goals: Have Zing reach unicorn status by crossing the $1-billion-in-value threshold that the unicorn label denotes.

“Few African Americans founders get access to venture capital, and few certainly get access to the significant capital that Zing Health has,” he says. “I want Zing to be an exemplar of what’s possible, because if someone sees us do it, then they can think they can do it themselves. So that’s a pretty lofty goal, but it’s one that I would love to reach in the next four or five years.”

Keith Loria, a frequent contributor to Managed Healthcare Executive®, is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.