Thursday, July 07, 2011

Being a Non-Profit Hospital CEO Means Never Having to Say You Are Sorry

When my arm was twisted heartily to see the movie "Love Story" a very long time ago, I could never understand why so many audience members sighed upon hearing that immortal line, "love means never having to say you're sorry."  I could not understand it then, and still cannot.

However, it seems that for reasons that are not any more clear, being the CEO of a not-for-profit hospital or hospital system also means never having to say you are sorry, as shown in some recent stories from the media.

Not Sorry for Leaving

Originally published in the Fargo (ND) InForum:
The merger 1½ years ago of Sanford Health and MeritCare created a new entity that doubled in size and covers a service area of more than 130,000 square miles.

But the unified health care giant needed only one top executive, and the departing chief administrator received a $1 million contract buyout, according to documents obtained by The Forum.

Dr. Roger Gilbertson, a neuroradiologist who had served as MeritCare’s top executive since its founding 17 years earlier, received a 'separation payment' provided by his contract of $1,000,920, according to a report Sanford filed with the Internal Revenue Service that recently became available.

Not only did Dr Gilbertson not have to say he was sorry for leaving, he collected what amounted to a million dollar plus bonus just for going out the door.

Not Sorry for Leaving Amidst Financial Losses

A long story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution discussed compensation for a number of Atlanta area hospital and hospital system CEOs.  For example,
Edward Bonn of Southern Regional Health System, which operates Southern Regional Medical Center and two affiliated facilities, made $2,610,175 in fiscal 2009. Bonn left the system that year and received his pay of $421,822 plus $2.2 million from a retirement plan. Hospital CEOs commonly receive extra pay from retirement plans when they leave.

Bonn did not receive a bonus because the hospital system lost $12 million that year, the hospital said.

Mr Bonn apparently did not need to say he was sorry for collecting over $2 million when that amount was equal to about one-sixth of his system's yearly loss.

Not Sorry for Financial Losses Plus a "Culture of Entitlement"

This story was in the Peterborough (NH) Examiner:
Former Peterborough Regional Health Centre CEO Paul Darby was given at least $340,126 plus benefits as a financial package after his retirement in December 2009.

He didn't work a single day or offer a single service in 2010 while earning the second top salary at PRHC, just behind current CEO Ken Tremblay.

'The compensations with Paul were in line with similar arrangements with other CEOs and other public hospitals which include support to the executive following the employment period,' board chairwomen Barb Cameron said. 'It is important that we are able to make transitions between leaders smoothly and these kinds of arrangements with the executive allow us to do that.'

Darby retired before a whirlwind of controversy hit the hospital last year including a scathing peer-review report blaming hospital top brass for a 'culture of entitlement' leading to spiraling, cumulative debt.

When Darby left, the hospital faced a growing deficit of just under $25 million.

He was paid $364,275 in 2009, $310,983 in 2008 and $269,419 in 2007.
At least his severance package was less than one-sixth of the deficit.
Not Sorry for Not Even Revealing One's Salary

Here is a local Rhode Island story reported by WPRI:
The nonprofit group that runs three Rhode Island Hospitals including Women & Infants won’t say whether its new chief executive will receive a seven-figure pay package that matches his predecessor’s.

Care New England tapped Cambridge Health Alliance CEO Dennis Keefe as its new president and CEO this week. He will succeed John Hynes, who is retiring, in August.

Care New England spokeswoman May Kernan said the organization would not release details about Keefe’s compensation. 'Other than complying with public reporting requirements as part of the federal [IRS] 990 forms, we do not disclose personal salary information,' she told in an email.

Hynes’ compensation totaled $1.5 million in 2008-09, up from $873,332 in 2007-08, tax records show.
Note that the hired executives of big for-profit corporations also are increasingly uncomfortable about public discussion of their compensation (see this post).
Where All CEOs Are Above Average

The rationales presented for such apparently exceptional treatment given non-profit hospital CEOs (and other hired health care managers) are those we have heard before.

The most prominent rationale for exceptional treatment of an individual CEO is that he (or rarely she) was such an exceptional leader. This would be more believable if it was not used so often, suggesting that those who defend these leaders, often including the boards of trustees who are supposed to supervise them, believe all hospital CEOs, like the mythical children of Lake Woebegone, are above average.

For example, the InForum article provided this explanation of Dr Gilbertson's compensation:
The only comment Sanford provided The Forum was a statement about Gilbertson’s contributions to MeritCare over his long tenure.

'Dr. Gilbertson’s gift to this region is invaluable – 30 years in medicine and 17 years as President/CEO of MeritCare only glance the surface,' said Andrew Richberg, a Sanford executive vice president. 'His vision for health care integration, medical knowledge and dedication to patients made him a pillar in our industry.'

Gilbertson’s legacy, Richberg added, is 'strong, safe and sustainable health care for all people, in their hometowns, all across the region.'

While the article did not suggest Dr Gilbertson's leadership was poor, it is hard to believe that he alone was responsible for "strong, safe and sustainable health care for all people ... all across the region." I am sure there are many other health care professionals in North Dakota who have worked for many years, and who have a strong vision, good medical knowledge, and dedication to patients.  I am sure almost none got $1 million severance packages.  If health care in North Dakota is really that good, is that not because of a lot of hard work by a lot of health care professionals?

The rationale of exceptional treatment for exceptional individuals would also be more believable if it was not used to defend CEOs whose organization performed poorly under their leadership. For example, in the Peterborough Examiner:
'I would like to acknowledge that these are big salaries, but they are big positions in a large hospital involving large responsibilities and requiring unique skills,' [hospital board of trustees chairwoman] Cameron said,....

Would not having the large responsibility for a large deficit argue against a large severance package?

The Market Made Us Do It

Despite substantial evidence and strong arguments (see here) that health care cannot approach being an ideal free market, another favorite rationale for CEO exceptionalism is that the market made us do it. For example, per the AJC:
The number of people who can manage these facilities is limited and recruitment is competitive, [Georgia Hospital Association President Joseph] Parker said.

Qualified leaders will gravitate to other fields over time if compensation for nonprofit CEOs is decreased, [executive search consulting company Mercer Inc partner Jose] Pagoaga said. The 'substandard leadership' that replaces them will degrade the quality of medical care for the community.

There’s debate on the issue.

It’s hard to believe that people who choose the field of charitable medical care would leave because they make only $800,000 a year instead of $1.5 million, said Mark Rukavina, executive director of the Access Project, a Boston patient advocacy organization.

But Pagoaga said nonprofit hospitals cannot count on their charitable duty to attract and retain the best administrators.

'Yes, it’s a social mission, but this is not the priesthood and these people have not taken a vow of poverty,' he said. 'You can’t discount the views of people that look at this as an altruistic mission and think that pay should therefore be limited. All I’m saying is there is an entirely different point of view based on free-market principles.'

In the real world, of course, poverty would hardly be defined as an income less than $1 million a year. Mr Pagoaga never explicated the point of view based on "free-market principles," but I wonder if it can be summarized as "greed is good?"  It would be interesting to see how Mr Pagoaga could explain how health care is like unto an ideal free market.  

Non-Profit Organizations are Not Very Different from For-Profit

Perhaps the most intriguing argument was found in the AJC article:
Pay in excess of $1 million a year may seem high for an organization subsidized by taxpayers, but hospital executives and industry representatives said the public should think of these hospitals not as charities, but as complex, billion-dollar organizations.

Georgia hospitals report to 27 state and federal agencies and engage in multimillion-dollar building projects. The larger hospital systems have billions in revenue and are among the largest employers in their communities. Many also operate for-profit subsidiaries.

'You can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not an ice cream shop on the side of the street,' said Joseph Parker, president of the Georgia Hospital Association.
Note that currently US non-profit organizations do not have to report much data on their for-profit subsidiaries.  The above argument suggests they deserve considerably more scrutiny.
Of course, that last explanation begs the question of why the compensation of for-profit hired executives should be even higher, with CEO compensation often well more than two orders of magnitude, that is, hundreds of times higher than that of the lowest paid also hired employees (see this post).


I submit that non-profit hospitals and hospital systems do have a "social mission," which ought to be upheld by their leadership. Despite the rationales supplied above, the leaders ought to be accountable, which may sometimes mean having to say they are sorry.

As I have repeated endlessly,... health care organizations need leaders that uphold the core values of health care, and focus on and are accountable for the mission, not on secondary responsibilities that conflict with these values and their mission, and not on self-enrichment. Leaders ought to be rewarded reasonably, but not lavishly, for doing what ultimately improves patient care, or when applicable, good education and good research. On the other hand, those who authorize, direct and implement bad behavior ought to suffer negative consequences sufficient to deter future bad behavior.

What Is to Be Done?

Based on our ever enlarging file of cases on compensation of the top hired managers of non-profit health care organizations, let me make some concrete suggestions, based on my humble opinion.

A step forward would be to make the finances and compensation arrangements of health care non-profit organizations at least as transparent as those of large public for-profit organizations. So my big idea is:

- Non-profit health care organizations above a reasonable threshold size should provide prompt, public, annual reports analogous and very similar to the reports required by the US Securities and Exchange Commission of public, for-profit companies.

These reports should include, at a minimum, a summary of financial and operational status, an audited financial report, an explanation and accounting for any for-profit subsidiaries and any interlocking non-profit organizations, the compensation given to the CEO and some minimum number of the top-paid officers and employees, a detailed explanation and rationale for the pay of these individuals, and a listing of other affiliations and all conflicts of interest affecting them.

If need to supply such information causes non-profit health care organizations' hired executives and boards of trustees some cognitive dissonance, that would be a good thing. 


Steve Lucas said...

Medicine has moved from being dysfunctional to being dangerous.

In the June 29 WSJ story titled Medtronic Surgeons Held Back, Study Says we find doctors being paid by Medtronic held back information regarding negative out comes of a bone growth product.

July 5 WSJ Pfizer Drug Tied To Heart Risk covers the increased cardiovascular problems with Chantix.

July 6 WSJ Heart Treatment Overused covers the over use of stents and the profit potential for doctors and hospitals.

July 6 WSJ Beware the Risk of Generic Drugs covers the importation of untested or tainted product used in our pharmaceuticals. This issue has been covered on HCR.

Moving to my electronic files:

1 Boring Old Man

This covers the reworking of a previously done study to promote the use of drugs in children.

1 Boring Old Man

This covers the death of a child, a child, using the above drug information.

HealthReviewNews Blog

Marilyn Mann is approached on her Facebook page set up to help her sick child by a drug PR person to promote a drug.

What do all of these references have in common? Senior executives removed from the day to day work of helping people being able to claim they are not responsible while making ever larger incomes.

The corporate culture of medicine has become so perverse that even selling a drug that has no benefit becomes acceptable. Billions are wasted.

Heart Health Center Health Day News

This does not even begin to cover computer issues and Scot’s tragedy.

Steve Lucas

Judy B said...

Bravo Dr. Poses! I don't know when or if more people are going to wake up and realize that the medical industry is not about helping people anymore. There is way too much of the financial pie going to a very select group who apparently do not have even a rudimentary sense of ethics!