Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Hospital CEO as Debt Collector

Last year we noted that the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) required more detailed reporting starting in 2009 by US not-for-profit organizations. Many US health insurance companies/ managed care organizations, most hospitals, nearly all medical associations, nearly all disease advocacy organizations, all health care charities, and nearly all medical schools are not-for-profit organizations. We suggested then that this reporting might lead to more transparency about the leadership and governance of these organizations.  The 2009 990 forms seem to be trickling into public view, sometimes leading to some striking disclosures about how US not-for-profit health care organizations are lead.

The California Watch blog just reported about the interesting part-time job of a hospital CEO:
The former president of a Laguna Beach hospital has been operating a debt-collection company that recovered medical payments from his own facility, raising conflict-of-interest questions as the CEO moves to a new hospital in Riverside County.

Bruce Christian ran South Coast Medical Center from 2005 until it was sold in 2009. At the same time, Christian was owner of Metro Republic Commercial Services, a consulting and medical debt-collection firm that provided at least $110,000 in services to South Coast while Christian was a top manager, records show.

South Coast Medical Center disclosed the arrangement as 'self-dealing' in federal tax filings. State law allows self-dealing by board members of nonprofits, typically as long as the body explores other options and determines they are not unduly enriching one of their own.

Of course, I also get to write, but wait, there is more:
Christian was also at the helm of the hospital in 2006 when Adventist hired one of his Metro Republic consultants as interim chief financial officer, tax records show.

Adventist said it appointed the interim CFO when it believed the hospital would be sold quickly.

Additionally, a version of the Metro Republic website in 2006 said the firm supplied South Coast Medical Center with health care financial consulting, managed care-revenue recovery and accounts-receivable services.

The website, which appears to have been offline since 2006, describes Christian as a health industry leader for 30 years who built the Corona-based Metro Republic from a three-person office to one with 150 employees.

Predictably, the response from the hospital and its parent health system was that it was all no big deal.
Adventist Health West, the Roseville-based company that owned South Coast, acknowledged that the arrangement was 'unusual' and 'not the norm' for the firm.

In a statement, Adventist said Christian's firm collected hospital debts for years before Adventist bought the hospital and prior to Christian’s tenure as president and CEO.

Board members were aware of the arrangement. It remained in place while the chain sought to sell the medical facility throughout Christian’s tenure, the statement said.

'Unfortunately, it took much longer than originally envisioned to sell the hospital,' Adventist Health said in a statement. 'Adventist Health continues its deep commitment to providing mission-driven, quality health care to the communities we serve.'

Some thought otherwise:
But allowing a hospital administrator – who can have considerable power over setting prices on medical procedures – to operate as the hospital’s own bill collector presents a thorny conflict of interest, said Ken Berger, executive director of Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based charity evaluation group.

'Just because the (hospital) board may sanction it doesn’t make it right, appropriate or ethical,' he said. 'The mission of hospitals and the mission to squeeze money out of those that are slow to pay can be quite contradictory. It’s just wrong.'

Another expert thought something ought to be done:
Kathryn Peisert, managing editor for publications at the San Diego-based Governance Institute, said a hospital CEO’s duty is to further the interests of the hospital. As such, she said, Christian should have eliminated all appearances of impropriety and cut ties between the medical center and his consulting firm.

'That’s really a big no-no,' said Peisert, whose organization advises hospital boards. 'I’m surprised some regulatory agencies haven’t been after this.'

We will see if anything will be done, but this conflict of interest seems not to have gotten in the way of Mr Christian's career advancement.
Christian is now chief executive of a Loma Linda University Medical Center campus expected to open in 2011 in Riverside County. A Loma Linda University Medical Center spokesman said the Murrieta campus will not contract with Metro Republic.

As I have said before, I expect that as more 990s dribble out, seemingly as slowly as many organizations can manage, we will see many more examples of these sorts of conflicts of interest, in which top organizational leaders also turn out to be vendors, consultants, etc.

In theory, and perhaps in a golden era in the past, leaders of not-for-profit health care organizations were supposed to regard their work as a calling, and to be primarily concerned with upholding the mission of the organization. Instead, we now see more leaders who seem to regard their organizations as their own personal sand boxes, providing opportunities for play, and sometimes personal enrichment. (Note that Mr Christian's total compensation from the hospital was "$360,000 and $400,000 in salary, benefits and deferred compensation in 2006 and 2007 at South Coast Medical Center.")

Unfortunately, Mr Christian's case demonstrates that leaders who get used to their organizations as personal sand boxes, rather than face punishment,  may be given the opportunity to play in larger venues. One wonders how much he will make at the helm of a new academic medical center, what other side deals he will manage, and how much he will be concerned with the academic and clinical missions.

Once again, I say that true health care reform will only be achieved when health care organizations are lead by people who put the mission ahead of their personal enrichment, and are held accountable for their ability to do so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This does not amaze me or many others one bit.
Until the government steps in and puts an end to this, they will continue.