Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Covert's Anechoic Misadventures

We have frequently discussed how health care leaders' compensation seems to reflect the opposite of the pay for performance they often tout.  One example we discussed recently turns out to be even more vivid than we first discovered.

Last week we discussed the case of Mr Michael Cover, the CEO of the small, public Palomar Pomerado Health system in southern California, whose total compensation increased to over $1 mllion a year, while his hospital system was cited for severe, life-threatening medical errors.  The current and previous system board chairmen called his work "excellent, and " phenomenal," and asserted Mr Covert was "one of the nation's leading health administrators."

It turns out that a local weekly newspaper, the Community Paper, investigated Mr Covert's background in 2008, and what they found was not exactly the story of one of the nation's leading health administrators.  Let us summarize his record over 25 or so years.

1980s - Failure to Investigate the Michael Swango Case

As reported by the Community Paper:
Michael J Swango had received a surgical internship at Ohio State University in 1983. Nurses began noticing that apparently healthy patients on floors where Swango worked began dying mysteriously with an alarming frequency. One nurse caught him injecting some 'medicine' into a patient who later became strangely ill. The nurses reported their concerns to the administrators, headed by Michael Covert, but were met with accusations of paranoia. Only a perfunctory investigation was conducted.

In response to the board's inquiries, Surgery Director Dr. Larry Carey expressed misgivings about Swango, citing run-ins with hospital personnel and, specifically, the episode with several patients who became ill after treatment by Swango, one of whom died (and for whom Swango would later plead guilty to having killed).

At no time did Mike Covert, as executive director of the Ohio State University Hospital system, call in either University Police or Columbus, Ohio Police to investigate the matter, even though patients of Dr. Swango had died, even though documented observations and evidence had been submitted to the proper internal authorities.

Later, after Swango had been arrested in Illinois, the Ohio authorities got involved, however:
'It was only then,' says Dick Harp, Lead Investigator for the Ohio State University police department on the Michael Swango case, 'when the Quincy, Illinois, police department called us and told us they had this guy who had been a doctor at Ohio State and he had poisoned some people, that we got involved.' Harp said he contacted the Ohio State Hospital University staff and there appeared to be a collective effort to resist the investigation. They were not terribly cooperative, he said.

The Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, Ohio’s, daily newspaper, reported in a June 1985 article that as a result of the controversial fallout caused by this failure to notify police authorities, a new hospital policy was implemented. This, following an internal report concerning the allegations against Swango as well as a highly critical internal report against Dr. Swango.

Swango was convicted of aggravated battery for attempting to poison co-workers in Illinois, and in 2000 pleaded guilty to killing three patients, and is in jail for life.

In retrospect, Covert's resistance to investigating complaints about Swango does not seem to have exemplified excellent leadership.

The 1990s - Jury Findings of Illegal Revocation of Privileges

Mr Covert then moved to Kansas, and then to Sarasota, Florida to become CEO of Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

The Community Paper noted that Mr Covert and the Hospital lost a multi-million dollar lawsuit that alleged the they had illegally revoked a physicians' hospital privileges:
Dr. Flynn and his attorneys alleged, and proved, that Michael Henri Covert, president and CEO of Sarasota’s Memorial Hospital, and the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board, doing business as Sarasota Memorial Hospital, unlawfully and without just cause, revoked or terminated the medical privileges of a doctor at the hospital who specialized in pain management, and that they did so because the doctor had earlier (in 1994) filed and pursued a federal lawsuit. Secondly, the jury also found that the Hospital Board had additionally executed the revocation and termination of medical privileges for other than the filing of the federal lawsuit. Under Section II of the jury verdict they also found that the Sarasota County Public Hospital had terminated or revoked the doctor’s privileges as as a result of the doctor having exercised his freedom of speech rights.

Called to the witness stand, Michael Covert was clearly and thoroughly impeached by Plaintiff’s attorney, Tony Leon.

Impeachment is a lawyer’s fancy word that simply means the witness and his veracity is questioned. The witness is accused of not being honest in his actions and statements. Based on his testimony while being impeached, the jury then made their judgment, ruling against Michael R. Covert and the Sarasota Memorial Hospital, finding the Defendant had violated 28 U.S.C., Section 1983 (depriving the plaintiff of his constitutional rights of free speech) and the Plaintiff was entitled to damages.

The Community Paper story also alleged that Sarasota Memorial lost millions of dollars through an ill-advised subsidiary set up by Mr Covert to buy physicians practices.

Losing the trial and losing the money again hardly seem to be the mark of an outstanding leader.

21st Century - Alleged Misrepresentations to Secure Government Funding

Mr Covert became CEO of Palomar Pomerado in 2003. In 2007, the Community Paper reported:
Mike Covert, the president and CEO of the Palomar Pomerado Health District, was quite active in promoting Proposition BB which would deliver $496 million dollars to the district to aid in building a new hospital. It suggested further that Mr. Covert was so active that he and his minions may have, in fact, made substantial misrepresentations in order to persuade the electorate to pass the bond issue. We also documented how the cost overruns had run up to $1.2 billion dollars (from an original projected cost of $753 million). This figure was later trimmed back to $990 million. Further, the downtown business community was concerned that a major promise that was made about importing the administrative staff to the existing downtown Palomar Hospital campus might not be kept. If that promise was broken then downtown Escondido might well become a ghost town.

That story lead the paper to inquire further.  Further, misrepresentations are not the mark of an excellent leader.

2008 - Alleged Dictatorial Management Style

Reporters found:
Talking with medical staff, newspaper reporters from Columbus, Ohio, and Sarasota, Florida, and with medical staff here in North San Diego County, a picture of an energetic, eager, impatient, egotistical, demanding, and often angry chief executive emerges. It was interesting that a parallel term was used by medical staff in Sarasota and in Escondido to describe Mr. Covert’s management style. 'He’s a Little Hitler,' was the common expression used by both medical communities.

According to several medical staffers at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Covert was not well liked, was described as manipulative and that he would do anything to get his way. Former board member Catherine Bowles, who had been at odds with the board and Covert testified at Dr. Flynn’s trial that 'people who complained about patient care were not warmly received by a majority of the board.' Nor, it is said, by Mr. Covert.

A number of others who know him, both within the medical community as well as within the Escondido community at large, agree that he is a highly egotistical man. He has to have things done his way. He is very good at playing politics and is also very good at playing hardball with contracted medical service suppliers.

Yet another doctor gave a somewhat contrasting view: 'He’s affable on one hand . . . a very good salesman; in front of a group he’s almost evangelical in his passion . . he almost bowls you over. Makes me kinda question someone who has so much zeal like . . 'I’m right.''

'Like all CEO’s, he’s very egotistical. He wants to have total control over everything, including the doctors.'

It is said he wields departmental administrative assignments as a tool and dangles the financial remuneration of them, ranging from as little as $10,000 to as much as $150,000 a year, as an incentive to fall in step with his wishes.

A number of doctors who practice at the Escondido campus of Palomar Medical Center confided to us, off the record, that they feared Covert.

One doctor complained, 'Covert is trying to take over as dictator of the hospital. There is supposed to be a separation between the hospital, the medical staff and the administrator. If you have the administrator making all the decisions then all decisions are made on money issues rather than what is best for the patient or the patient population. This poses a threat to the medical population and harms the quality of medical care. Covert is simply Hitler reborn.'

Another doctor agreed, saying, 'At most hospital districts, administrators don't normally show up at Medical Executive Meetings unless invited . . . but here, administrators are present at closed meetings. They should not be privy to private medical meetings/discussions and they tend to dominate the meetings.'
Again, a "brilliant" leader who is manipulative, rebukes criticism, and dictatorial?

2008 - Contrasting Praise from the Board

While the physicians questioned his management style, just as we noted this year, the then board chairman was effusive:
You and your readers need to know that Covert is one of the most highly regarded executives in the industry. He has received a number of very prestigious awards. Some of them puts him in the company of surgeon generals, such as C. Everett Koop. He has held high executive and board membership in national organizations.

At that time, the board chairman claimed that when Mr Covert was hired, after having been recommended by a national search firm, none of the issues noted above had come to light. 

2008 - The Temporary End of the Story

The Community Paper story ended on a disquieting note, suggesting that even the extensive results of their investigation recounted above were not complete, and that there might be grounds for a criminal investigation:
There are many other comments from physicians, other leads to follow in pursuit of the rest of this story. However, we, as a weekly newspaper, have neither the time nor resources to explore the labyrinthine depths of hospital administration committees, subcommittes, advisory councils, etc. Side financial agreements, whether or not their are 'kickback' arrangements within the hospital structure. That additional research and reporting would be better left to someone who has the resources, such as a Grand Jury.

I could find nothing to suggest any further investigation ensued. There appears to have been no local reaction to the Community Paper story. As we noted above, instead Mr Covert got a raise, and is currently getting over $1 million a year in total compensation.


A more complete look at the record of one CEO of one small, public hospital system suggests even more discrepancies between his ever increasing remuneration, justified by ongoing effusive support by his board, and a record that at best suggests multiple questionable management decisions and multiple bad results.

Note that even though considerable information was available on the public record that should have lead to questions about his leadership, this information remained relatively anechoic, and the questions were not repeated.  We have found that very few have been willing to question or investigate the powers that be in health care, and that direct or implied concerns about how health care is lead tend to be anechoic.

This case demonstrates the sorts of problems in health care governance and leadership that we started Health Care Renewal to discuss. Perverse incentives and poor oversight seem to encourage leadership by the wrong people, hired for the wrong reasons, to do the wrong thing.

There is again an ongoing discussion in the US about the costs of health care. Bad leadership of health care organizations is not only directly costly, but leads to huge indirect costs as the results of bad, if not sometimes corrupt decisions. As Matthew Holt pointed out in a comment on our earlier post on Palomar Pomerado, it is not that the case above is an outlier. It is likely just a better documented version of what is going on throughout health care.

Yet outside of a few lonely bloggers, not many people talk about bad leadership and bad governance as fundamental, major causes of our ongoing health care crisis.

We say again, true health care reform will require having health care leadership and governance that displays accountability, integrity, transparency, and honesty.  But first, we have to be willing to openly discuss bad, that is unaccountable, opaque, dishonest, and corrupt leadership. 

Hat tip to our own Health Care Renewal blogger Dr Scot Silverstein for finding the 2008 Community Paper story (see his comment here).


Anonymous said...

I remember the Swango case. A lot of people were doing a lot of shoveling to cover up that mess. The silence was deafening.

I also have to wonder if people do not want to know. In my ongoing current issue with clergy we were surprised to find that right after completion of a motivational series a new initiative was started to raise a six figure amount equal to half of the budget. Shockingly a large amount had already been raised privately with no knowledge of the general congregation, and no questions are being asked about appropriateness of the amount, or the manner in which it was raised.

There are only vague references to parking lot repair and now multi-media upgrades.

There becomes a steam roller effect and the noted public evangelical speaking style of the leader smoothes away all questions and concerns. Sadly this typically ends badly and equally the person is allowed to move on for fear of this tyrant taking legal action.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the naievte of a layperson, but why can't the doctors and/or nurses strike? Why can't doctors opt to send patients to a different hospital? A for-profit hospital, apparently, only pays attention when profits drop


Roy M. Poses MD said...

Doctors could only strike if they were hospital employees. I suspect most of the doctors involved here are in private practice.
The doctors could send patients to other hospitals, if the hospitals were of no worse quality, were not to far away, and were acceptable to their patients.
The nurses perhaps could strike, if they were unionized and depending on the contract involved.

Afraid said...

Melody, The problem is that those who speakup, strike or whatever are ruined by the system.

Since it is the same everwhere, the same sorts of folks don't want people who repect the patient and mission enough to stand up against administration. Even a rumor that you are patient first, administration second can kill your career.

There is no transparency, no recourse, no help. You are a dead man walking.

Doug Perednia, MD said...

Good God, where the heck is the regular news media on stuff like this??? All those channels and all of that newsprint, and they feel it's more important to cover Rep. Weiner than serious problems of healthcare institution leadership like this? At the very least you'd think that the regional news media would care.

Anonymous said...


Thanks . . . I don't think I'm unique among laypeople, who see doctors as the gateway to change. The media distracts us with the argument that either the government or insurance companies will be in charge of our healthcare. And they always throw in the "free market" argument. Some of us understand that health and healthcare is NOT a commodity like a new car or television. We (laypeople) don't have enough knowledge to determine whether the pain in our stomach is indigestion, an ulcer, a blockage or cancer. But we're told we should become wise spenders of our healthcare dollars. For years I've contended that doctors have untold and unused powers to advocate for patients and for change. Sadly, the changing landscape in medical schools is scrunching our new MD's into the car-salesman model instead of leaders and instruments of change that they were in times past. Like our government leaders, inside-the-box thinking and herd mentality seem to be the rule of the day. Sites like this one--with copious amounts of sunshine--keep me hopeful that eventually the pendulum will swing the other way. But will it happen in my lifetime?


Anonymous said...

I would imagine that there were many doctors along the way who complained of this Mammar like figure and were sham peer reviewed into career ruin...or run out of town with dings on his/her record.

Doctors in private practice who have medical staff privileges to care for patients at that hospital have little to no standing at bringing action against administrators.

The Joint Commission fails in its accountability as well for its failure to ask the doctors about the administrators,.,,and, to make matters worse, the Joint insists on full identification of all plaintiffs to the hospital. There you go.

Anonymous said...

Things like the JCAHO become tools of the administrative mafia. HIPAA is also a tool to enforce silence between healthcare providers. PR is controilled by administration and is very powerful, especially with newspapers and TV stations who want the hospital's advertising dollars.

All of the things that are supposed to help are twisted to serve the needs of the leadership.