Crusader for Cures

Chicago businessman Lou Weisbach—once a major player in Democratic fundraising—has turned his persuasive skills to a new project: creating a medical research institution dedicated to ending chronices diseases.

 

Photograph: Peter Wynn Thompson
“The National Institutes of Health is not . . . about cures,” says Lou Weisbach.

Lou Weisbach was perplexed. A famously successful Chicago businessman and Democratic Party powerhouse, he had stopped to take the pulse of health care in the United States, and the prognosis was not good. “I got to wondering why, in our lifetime, we hadn’t cured anything,” says Weisbach today as he looks back some six or seven years. “Not since polio, 50 years ago, have we cured a major disease. Intuitively, it didn’t make sense.”

That’s when Weisbach came up with the idea for the American Center for Cures (ACC), the cause that has been his passion since 1999. Weisbach’s ACC would impose a goal-driv­en regimen on efforts to eliminate the most debilitating diseases-those chronic illnesses that afflict millions of people each year, draining off vast sums of public and private money while inflicting incalculable pain and sadness. In the public sector, most of the efforts to battle disease are concentrated on the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which receives about $28 billion annually in federal funds. Composed of 27 different institutes or centers, the NIH, working under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, looks for important medical breakthroughs in its own laboratories, while also distributing funds to support similar research in universities, hospitals, and other institutions around the country.

For Weisbach, the diffuse nature of the NIH is just one of that agency’s problems. Rather than being driven by any sense of a common mission, he contends, its various segments and scientists individually pursue their own interests, wandering wherever their curiosity might lead them. And when breakthroughs do occur, Weisbach says, the NIH moves too slowly in advancing them from the laboratory to the clinic, where they could do the most good.

“The National Institutes of Health is not about responsibility and it’s not about cures,” says Weisbach. “We need to look at each disease as a puzzle. The NIH is creating the pieces of a puzzle. We want to put them together. It’s all about changing the process.” (Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the director of the NIH, did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

Maximizing his business and political connections, Weisbach, 57, has assembled an impressive list of supporters for his plan, most notably Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Demo­crat, who has introduced legislation to create an American Center for Cures. But that legislation worries some medical professionals, who are concerned that it would merely create another layer of health care bureaucracy while siphoning off public money to private interests. “You can always criticize the NIH,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a cofounder of the Chicago-based Physicians for a National Health Program. “But [Lieberman’s] bill would make health research even more susceptible to commercial and political interference.”

Weisbach acknowledges the need for federal money to begin his program, but he envisions the ACC as one day becoming an entirely private venture. “We currently spend more than $165 billion on diabetes,” he counters. “Just think what we could do with that kind of money if we could cure diabetes.”

What’s more, Weisbach says, the ACC would be led by what he calls a “secretary of cures” who could be held accountable-as in “fired,” the ultimate peer review-if the ACC failed to meet established goals.

As passionate as Weisbach is about his crusade for cures, he is entirely willing to reshape his plan in response to credible criticism. In fact, part of Weisbach’s success seems to stem from his willingness to listen to what others say. He’s plugged away at this for more than six years now, and it’s given him a nonchalant confidence that is not easily fazed. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” he asks. “Even if we fail, we’re bound to learn new things.”

Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Former president Bill Clinton talks with Dr. Rick Boxer (left), Weisbach’s partner in creating the American Center for Cures.

When last we met up with Lou Weisbach (see The Rainmaker, by Steve Rhodes, Chicago, January 2000), he was stumping for Al Gore, expanding the roster of the Democrats’ Jefferson Trust (the party’s exclusive club of donors who had contributed $100,000 or more), and winding down his involvement in Ha-Lo Industries, the hugely successful promotional products company that Weisbach, a former high-school basketball coach, had begun out of the trunk of his car and then expanded, in 1972, with a $3,500 loan from his mother. In 1999, the company’s total sales approached $600 million.

As things turned out, Gore lost the election (well, at least he didn’t win it), the Jefferson Trust closed up shop, and Ha-Lo, under new management and just emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, was sold to a Miami-based investment firm for $22 million in 2003. By then, Weisbach was long gone, having surrendered the reins as Ha-Lo’s president and CEO in 1999 and given   up the title of chairman in 2002. “The board was not really my own board anymore,” says Weisbach, with no trace of animosity. “I had remained chairman in name only. The new management needed their own team.”

Not one to sit on the sidelines, Weisbach looked for another business project. Three years ago, working with former Cubs announcer Steve Stone and other investors, he formed a company called Teamscape and sought to move baseball’s Montreal Expos, then a team looking for a new home, to Las Vegas. A problematic site to begin with-gambling and baseball are historically a bad mix-Vegas was dealt what may have been the deathblow after Weisbach’s group allied itself with Oscar Goodman, the city’s colorful mayor. In September 2003, when members of Major League Baseball’s relocation team flew into Vegas to be lobbied and grandly entertained by Weisbach, Goodman bragged to them about his propensity for excessive drink and gambling, according to The Washington Post. “But everyone knows it, so it’s not a big deal,” Goodman confessed to officials. The Expos ended up in Washington, D.C., where they were reborn as the Nationals.

Today, Weisbach says he would still love to own a baseball team. And he currently has a sports connection with his new company, Stadium Capital Associates, which, says Weisbach, has developed a new way of funding stadiums without incurring large public debt. Citing proprietary interests, he declines to discuss specifics of the process.

Through all of this, the American Center for Cures has remained the chief focus of Weisbach’s enthusiasm. He started advocating for the ACC in 1999, and he soon found a valuable ally in Dr. Richard Boxer, a Milwaukee health policy consultant and phi­lanthropist who had served as a senior health adviser to President Clinton during his 1996 campaign. At the time, Boxer was fighting malignant melanoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, battles that he says he has won. “People ask me if I’m in remission,” he says, “and I tell them, No, I’m cured.” His daughter’s September wedding will take place on the tenth anniversary of his 1996 bone-marrow transplant.

Today, Weisbach calls Boxer his co­conspirator and best friend, a bond forged through years of tirelessly promoting-and reshaping-their ideas for the ACC. “We were flying around the country, meeting with organizations and doctors, crafting and recrafting our message,” Weisbach says. “Our brochures were changing virtually weekly. We wanted to make sense to the largest possible audience.”

At the core of their plan is the creation of a Cabinet-level agency that takes responsibility for coordinating efforts to eliminate cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other chronic diseases. Each disease could have a mission director-think executive VP-to coordinate efforts to eradicate that particular illness.

Though Weisbach can proselytize with the fervor of a preacher-he compares his plan to the Manhattan Project and to President Kennedy’s drive to land a man on the moon-his spiel, with its tinges of corporatespeak, reflects his business background. “We ­need mission-based research and measurable results,” he insists. “I would put in a business structure, and I would put in a timetable for the success of this mission.”

Boxer, 59, echoes this tone. “The country’s efforts in health care resemble a not well organized company,” he says. Operating the ACC based on a sound business model, he says, would only improve the chances for medical breakthroughs. “And we want to be fired if we don’t succeed,” he adds.

With their plan in place, Weisbach and Boxer hit the hustings, eventually winning over a wide and disparate array of backers in medical, educational, and political circles. The American Medical Association has endorsed the ACC, and its many other supporters include Michael Milken, the former junk-bond king and convicted felon who now devotes much of his time to accelerating medical research; Leland Hartwell and Stanley Prusiner, both Nobel laureates in medicine; and Tommy Thompson, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin who served as President George W. Bush’s first secretary of health and human services.

“I’m passionate about anything that will help improve health care in this country,” says Thompson, speaking by telephone from Washington, where he is a partner in the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and the chairman and senior adviser of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. “Congress isn’t ready to grapple with these problems. It needs something like the [ACC] to come up with ideas. We’re not all in agreement about what exactly needs to be done, but we do agree that the system has got to be transformed. Who knows? This just might be the vehicle that flies.”

Others aren’t so sure. “This plan takes things out of the hands of scientists and peer review and turns them over to bureaucrats and corporate businessmen, who have already made a mess of things,” says Harvard’s Dr. Himmelstein. “It makes health care even more subservient to commercialization-and it would use federal money even more to subsidize private enterprises.”

Dr. Marcia Angell, a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the former editor of TheNew England Journal of Medicine, is equally skeptical. “I would be very worried that this is just one more way to shunt public money into private biotech and pharmaceutical companies,” she says.

Weisbach is up-front about his need for federal money, but says that he envisions the ACC as a “public-private venture that would ultimately go fully private. We will need the flexibility of a private-sector venture.”

Joseph Lieberman recalls being excited from the start by the idea being advanced by Weisbach and Boxer. “The basic idea was that we live in a time of unprecedented advances in the medical and bio sciences,” says the Connecticut senator by telephone from Washington. “But we still have chronic diseases-cancer, heart attack, and stroke-that account for seven out of ten deaths and [consume] two-thirds of every health dollar spent.” Throw in the looming threats of avian flu and bioterrorism, says Lieberman, and the urgency for revamping our national pursuit of medical cures gets amped up even more.

Lieberman took the idea and ran with it. In May 2003, in the midst of his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, he proposed spending $150 billion in public funds over ten years to fund an American Center for Cures. “Think of how we could reduce the cost of health care and health insurance if we could cure a lot of these diseases,” he said.

Although Lieberman failed to get the nomination, in December 2005 he introduced Senate Bill 2104, which would establish the American Center for Cures, starting with an annual budget of $5 billion. Lieberman emphasizes that his bill would be a cooperative endeavor with the NIH, which, he says, would actually receive additional funding under the provisions of the proposed plan. (The senator says that NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni has already indicated the agency is willing to work independently on certain portions of the bill.)

When Lieberman introduced his bill, he was joined by Thad Cochran, Republican senator from Mississippi and chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. The bill’s other sponsors are Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), an indication of the bill’s bipartisan support. Even the White House, which had initially remained unresponsive to the proposal, suddenly seems to be coming around: at press time, the president’s representatives were talking about setting up a meeting between Weisbach, Boxer, and Bush.

Meanwhile, though, Lieberman was facing a tough fight to retain his seat. (He said that if he lost in the August 8th primary to businessman Ned Lamont, he would enter the November election as an independently running Democrat.) Whatever his political future, Lieberman is optimistic that the American Center for Cures will ultimately become a reality. The credit, he insists, will belong entirely to Boxer and Weisbach. “Lou is a great advocate,” he says. “His skills and success are in marketing, and he has put that unique experience and talent behind efforts to transform the system.”

Like Lieberman-"I’m not here just to ma ke speeches,” the senator told me. “I want to get things done"-Weisbach and Boxer wouldn’t be investing so much time and energy in the ACC if they didn’t anticipate reaching their goal. “We’ve been working on this for six years,” says Boxer, “and we are going to succeed.”

Weisbach reiterates that attitude in a later conversation. “Rick and I are determined to keep working on this until we [succeed],” he says. “We’re only concerned about results, not necessarily the form. I have no pride of authorship.”

Since donning the mantle for the ACC, Weisbach has tried to turn politically neutral to maintain a bipartisan stance. Yet, a tone of disenchantment with the political process sometimes slips into his conversation-an attitude born, perhaps, from the failure of more politicians to rally to his cause. “Our representatives are afraid to do anything unless they’re forced to,” he complains. “I would expect Congress to be proactive on this or on any issue. But for Congress, it’s their own safety first, the people second.”

He elaborates in a subsequent e-mail. “It’s tragic that representatives in Congress of both parties are no longer willing to do the work of the people,” he writes. “There is a preoccupation about their own re-election and their political relationships with their financial backers. Unfortunately, principles and the public good consequently take a back seat.”

But that’s a rare sour note. Shortly after that exchange, Weisbach’s natural optimism and confidence are rekindled by the news of the White House’s interest. And, after all, he still has a great faith in the electorate. He believes they can be made to share his passion, if only they are properly informed. “You can get anything from this government,” he says, with a familiar enthusiasm, “if people want it enough.”

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