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Cook County Hospital CEO leaving for NYC post with de Blasio

Dr. Ram Raju  I  Sun-Times file photo

Dr. Ram Raju I Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: February 23, 2014 6:23AM

The CEO of Cook County’s $1 billion-a-year public health system, Dr. Ram Raju — who is credited with cutting costs and professionalizing county healthcare — announced Tuesday that he was leaving after two years to take a high-level appointment from newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“It’s a great loss for the hospital system,” said Warren Batts, the former county health system board chairman who oversaw the hiring of Raju. “He had an energy and interpersonal skills and desire to get into the nitty-gritty and roll up his sleeves.”

In his new role, Raju will be president of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, that city’s public hospital system.

Batts said that before Raju came to Chicago, he held the No. 2 spot with the system, but was prevented from taking the reins because CEOs of that system were typically political appointees – not healthcare professionals.

“De Blasio went with a professional and came in and stole our man,” Batts said.

The new job also allows Raju to rejoin his wife, children and 87-year-old mother, who stayed behind after he took the job with Cook County. Initially the family had planned to relocate, but that changed at some point after taking the job here, said Raju, whose wife is also a doctor, with a private practice in New York.

“I have family obligations, and that’s one of the reasons I am leaving,” Raju said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. My wife “is practicing, and it is very difficult when in a private practice to move things away. She is not prepared to retire.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle had lured Raju, a surgeon, to Chicago in 2011. He was paid a base salary of $500,000 a year as CEO of the cash-strapped county public health system. The agency accounts for about one-third of the total Cook County government budget.

During his tenure, Raju worked with Preckwinkle to find efficiencies and reduce the amount the county spent subsidizing the healthcare system, said Cook County Commissioner Jerry Butler, who serves on the health system board.

“I think a lot of what you see in savings is directly attributable to holding the line on employees,” Butler said of the employee unions, which he said had asked for an increase in benefits.

The cost of patient healthcare to the county dropped by $101 million during his tenure, said Preckwinkle spokeswoman, Kristen Mack.

But Butler said Raju had a human touch many administrators at his level lack.

“We were walking down the corridor of the hospital and he stopped to help a patient — that was before he had seen the operation and been hired. That was before we discussed his salary,” Butler said. “He didn’t have to do that.”

Raju also worked to get 70,000 people pre-enrolled in Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. This was before the program’s troubled rollout, when many weren’t even able to apply due to technical troubles with the government’s registration website.

Still left incomplete, however, is an ambitious plan to build a countywide insurance pool that could cut costs by requiring county workers to get medical care through the health system.

Tuesday morning in New York, de Blasio presented Raju as the new head of what the New York mayor described as “the largest, most complicated” municipal healthcare system in the country.

“He has shown a fundamental commitment to bringing healthcare to people in need,” de Blasio said of Raju. “We welcome a big man for a big job.”

Asked to compare the Cook County and New York City health systems, Raju said the county hospitals’ budget of roughly $1.1 billion is less than one-fifth the size of its New York City counterpart, which spends more than $6 billion a year on healthcare.

Later, via conference call, Raju said de Blasio offered him the job Wednesday of last week. He quickly came to a decision.

“While I am sad to see him go, I know that his unfailing work ethic and dedication has shaped a stronger health-care system for all our residents,” Preckwinkle said in a prepared statement.

Preckwinkle said an interim CEO will be appointed by the Cook County Health and Hospitals System board, which will conduct a search for Raju’s successor.

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