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Blue Cross parent hires top Northwestern doctor

Less than a year after he returned to Northwestern Memorial Hospital from Washington, D.C., Dr. Stephen Ondra is leaving as chief medical officer to be the top doctor at Chicago-based health insurance giant Health Care Service Corp.

A neurosurgeon and U.S. Army veteran, Dr. Ondra held key policy roles at the Veterans Affairs Department and in the Obama administration before he took the job April 16 at Northwestern Memorial. In addition to his roles at the VA, Ondra, 55, also previously advised on health information technology for President Barack Obama's office of science and technology.

When he joins Health Care Service on April 1, Dr. Ondra will be the company's top clinical executive, overseeing the medical side of coverage for 13 million members in Illinois. The nation's fourth-largest health insurer operates Blue Cross & Blue Shield plans in Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico and is in the process of acquiring the Montana plan.

“At the end of the day, we need to offer ways to help people achieve their best possible personal health and wellness,” Dr. Ondra said in a statement.

Dr. Ondra succeeds Dr. Paul Handel, a urologist who previously served as an executive with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Texas. Dr. Handel is retiring to upstate New York, where he plans to pursue winemaking, a company spokesman said.

Dr. Ondra, a 1984 graduate of Rush Medical College, completed his residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He practiced medicine in Illinois and Michigan.

While in college, he joined the Army. During the Operation Desert Storm in 1991, he was stationed in Saudi Arabia, where he served as a surgeon. Dr. Ondra was awarded the Bronze Star that year.

Shortly after President Obama was elected, the administration tapped him to join the National Science and Technology Council, a part of the Executive Office of the President, as a senior adviser and also serve a similar role in the office of Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Last year he returned to Northwestern Memorial, where he had once performed surgeries, saying he hoped to marshal the hospital's prodigious resources to “provide the best care in the nation,” he told Crain's in June.

Dr. Ondra now joins an organization with even more financial muscle. Health Care Service in 2011 posted $1.20 billion in net profit in its fully insured business, its second-straight year with billion-dollar-plus income. As of the third quarter of 2012, the mutual company was on track to surpass the $1 billion mark again. (These figures do not include profits from Health Care Service's administrative-services-only business for self-insured clients.)

“At a time of transformative change in our industry, the focus needs to be on how we can better deliver access to quality, affordable care in our communities,” said Health Care Service CEO Patricia Hemingway Hall, to whom Dr. Ondra will report. “We are certain that Dr. Ondra's wealth of medical experience in the public and private sectors will enhance our commitment to developing collaborative solutions to improving our nation's health care delivery system.”

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