After a gratifying career as a lawyer and elected official, Michael “Mike” Cabonargi is loving his new job as regional director for the Great Lakes region of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The 52-year-old resident of Wilmette was appointed to the post by the White House in February 2023. “I am really lucky,” he says. “HHS has an amazing mission and it really affects everyone in positive ways.”
Cabonargi oversees HHS Region V, which includes Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and 34 indigenous tribal nations. Altogether, the department has 10 regional offices and the largest federal budget in the nation after the U.S. Department of Defense.
Cabonargi’s role is to manage his team, as well as interface with a multitude of stakeholders — including state, local and tribal officials and community leaders — to address a wide range of needs. For example, on a recent week in December, Cabonargi met with the health commissioner in Cincinnati, toured a large senior center there, then flew to Minnesota to speak at a conference about health policy and meet with the state’s health commissioner to discuss Medicaid renewal.
While Medicare has open enrollment from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, the enrollment period for Medicaid corresponds to the month during which people first enrolled, he explains. A major goal is to ensure all Medicaid users are aware of that fact, which communities are addressing in ways ranging from billboards to gas station TV ads, he says.
His experience as a caregiver for his parents in their later years makes his current job even more meaningful, Cabonargi says. For example, the federal government for the first time negotiated lower prices for the 10 drugs most used by seniors, which can make an enormous difference, he says. He also pointed to the 2022 rollout of the 988 mental health crisis hotline, which has a response time of 40 seconds or less, he says. People can press 1 for a veterans’ counselor, 2 for Spanish language, and 4 for LBGTQ youth, he adds.
Born in Highwood and later raised in nearby Highland Park, Cabonargi attended Loyola Academy and Miami University, from which he earned a bachelor’s in political science and foreign affairs. He has a law degree from the University of Illinois.
Cabonargi, whose father emigrated from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and whose mother hailed from Iowa, says he grew up “very connected” to his Italian roots. He’s served on the Milan Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International and, in 2018, he received the outstanding achievement award by the Justinian Society of Lawyers.
But his Italian background is perhaps most evident in his love for bocce, jokes Cabonargi, a member of the Highwood Bocce Club. His whole family plays it, including his wife Erin, an architect and real estate developer. They live in Wilmette and have two sons: William, a college freshman, and Jack, a high school senior. Cabonargi says he hopes to join a bocce league, perhaps with his wife once they become empty nesters. “I am an eager and excited player … but talented? No,” he says. “I hope to improve my game!”
After college, Cabonargi worked for former Illinois U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, whom he called “an amazing mentor,” and Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. After law school, he clerked for U.S. District Court Judge William J. Hibbler and was in private practice for a brief period before joining the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2005. As SEC senior attorney, he investigated and prosecuted cases related to fraud, insider trading and pyramid/Ponzi schemes. He and his team brought forth a nearly $3 billion fraud case against seven executives of National Century Financial Enterprises, at the time the largest private fraud case by the SEC. He was recognized for that accomplishment with the SEC’s Chairman’s Award in 2007.
Cabonargi served from 2011 to 2022 on the Cook County Board of Review, for which he worked on tax appeals cases, including those involving the Sears Tower and Wrigley Field. “You can’t appeal your income tax and you can’t appeal sales taxes, but in Illinois they created a system where you can appeal your property taxes,” he explains.
He’s especially proud of an early initiative to translate complaint forms in languages such as Spanish, Polish, Korean and Mandarin. “I grew up helping my dad with government forms and paperwork, so that was important,” he explains. A later initiative consisted of making the complaint system paperless and remotely accessible, which turned to be vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says.
Italy figures prominently in Cabonargi’s future plans. He and his brother, who lives down the street from him in Wilmette, inherited their paternal family’s home, and the aim is to renovate it and truly enjoy it when the time comes, he says.
“Being Italian is at the core of who I am,” he says. “It’s important for my sons to have that connection, so it’s not just granddad stories, but it’s their lived life as well.”