Wednesday, February 20, 2013

It is Harder to Run a Small Public Hospital System than California? - Deep Seated Myths and Logical Fallacies Underpinning Health Care Executive Compensation

Hospital executive compensation, the gift that keeps on giving... 

A Public Hospital CEO's Current Compensation

A recent, somewhat obscure news article shows how deeply rooted is the current practice of paying top hired managers of health care organizations amounts that seem outlandish given the context.

The article, in the Argus - San Jose (CA) Mercury News, discussed the compensation given the CEO of a small public hospital district.  It opened with,

 Amid a budget crunch that has forced sweeping cutbacks at its medical facilities, the Washington Township Health Care District board of directors on Wednesday awarded its CEO $162,783 in incentive pay that raises her total annual compensation and contract perks this year to more than $800,000.

The bonus pushes Farber's total 2012-13 compensation past $813,915, less than the $936,349 she made in 2011 or her $912,519 pay in 2010, when she was among the top five paid government employees statewide in a survey by the state controller's office. 

Note first that Washington Township Health Care District is a public health district.  As an article from January, 2013 in The Argus - San Jose Mercury News explained,

The Washington Township Health Care District is a public agency in southern Alameda County and receives tax money from 320,000 district residents under voter-approved bond measures

The District is also under financial stress.  As the earlier Argus - Mercury News article stated,

Physician assistants, nurses and medical directors were among the 200 jobs recently eliminated by the Washington Township Health Care District to cut costs, according to new information released by the district.

In response to a request under the California Public Records Act, the district provided a list this week of the 75 job titles included in the approximately 132 vacant and 68 filled positions eliminated in recent months as part of a 13 percent workforce reduction.

Furthermore, as the newer Argus - Mercury News article noted,

 Farber was overseeing a 13 percent workforce reduction that eliminated 200 mostly vacant jobs. The district had seen operating profits plummet tens of millions of dollars last year from recent years.

So Ms Farber got a large salary plus bonus at a time when hospital "profits" were declining and many employees, including health care professionals with direct patient care responsibilities were being laid off. 

A Long History of Outsize Compensation

Note that this small public hospital system actually has a long history of paying its CEO a lot.

In 2003, the (Fremont-Newark, CA) Argus editorialized (the full article requires payment),

 HOW MUCH is too much?

We don't know the answer to that, but we're pretty sure $479,600 a year qualifies.

That's how much Washington Hospital is paying CEO Nancy Farber.

Farber will make a base salary of $406,000 during the 2003-04 fiscal year, a 10 percent raise from her 2002-03 salary of $368,000, plus she is getting a $73,000 bonus.

That editorial did not seem to prevent Farber from getting raise after raise in the subsequent years.

In 2011, the Los Angeles Times published an article with the headline, "Hospital executives occupy top tier of California's public workers."  It said this about the pay given Nancy Farber, still the CEO of Washington Township Health Care District,

The hospital's chief executive, Nancy Farber, is the second-highest-paid official covered in Chiang's database [of pay to public officials] so far. She was paid about $874,000 in 2009.

So Ms Farber's compensation has about doubled in the last 10 years, during which US cost of living has increased about 24% (look here).  And at least one local editorialist thought she was paid too much in 2003.

Justifying Large Payments with the Usual Talking Points

So why should the pay of the CEO of a relatively small public hospital system keep rising so fast, despite criticism.  To some extent in 2011, and quite clearly in 2013, her supporters trotted out the usual suspect arguments.

We previously have described (most recently here) how whenever anyone bothers to try to justify extravagant executive compensation at hospitals, and for that matter, most other health care organizations throughout the US, they seem to repeat the same set of talking points.    We first listed the talking points here, and then provided additional examples of their use here, here and here.   The talking points are:
-  we pay what everyone else pays
-  CEOs work hard and are brilliant, and so deserve high pay
-  high pay is needed to attract and retain competent, if not brilliant people.

In 2011, per the Los Angeles Times, "officials" of the health district combined all three in a single sentence, :

Officials at the Washington Township Health Care District in Fremont, Calif., also argued that they needed to pay 'market rate' to obtain top-quality staff.

In 2013,  the Argus - Mercury News described how Ms Farber's defenders used them all at length. 

CEOs Work Hard and are Brilliant

Board member Bernard Stewart, a local dentist who has served for more than a decade on Washington's board, said the salary comparison with other public employees was unfair.

'It's a temptation for all of us to compare the CEOs salary with other elected officials or other public officials, but I can't stress in the strongest means possible, that is an absolute error,' Stewart said. 'We in this hospital are a public hospital. We are a publicly elected board, but we are engaged in an incredibly competitive and difficult business and we are different from any other public organization in that regard.'

So one board member explicitly argued that being the CEO of a small public hospital system is much harder than any other kind of state government leadership position.

Since the article also included a comparison of Ms Farber's pay with that of the Governor of California,

By comparison, Gov. Jerry Brown will make just over $165,000 this year.

the board member implied that it is much harder to run a small public hospital district than the whole state.  That is breathtaking.

The board also more generally praised the CEO, 

 Ahead of the vote for the bonus Wednesday, all five board members praised Farber's leadership and said that, because of the difficulties facing the hospital, experienced leadership was needed.

In addition, note that hospital district board members suggested specific aspects of Ms Farber's performance worthy of high remuneration.

Board members credited Farber with implementing a new electronic records system, the construction of the district's new center for joint replacement on time and on budget, and for various accolades the district received last year. Among them, the district was ranked the fourth best hospital in the Bay Area by U.S. News & World Report and among the top 10 in the state for joint replacements by HealthGrades, a designation received for the last seven years.

Board members said Farber's decision to reduce the workforce was evidence of her exemplary leadership.

'Making the decision to downsize, or right-size, when necessary, is as much a part of being a responsible administrator as is building, growing and improving the health care system,' Nicholson said.

Board member Michael Wallace said Farber, 'has made tough and unpopular choices. The easy thing would have been to kick the can down the road, which is what we see happening all the time in Washington, but she didn't do that,'....

So we see here that the CEO is given personal credit for all good things, even good things that obviously required considerable work by other people.  I am certain that the CEO did not personally implement the EHR, did not construct the joint replacement center, and did not directly care for patients.   All the other employees who contributed to these apparent successes implicitly got no credit, and it is likely that some employees who actually contributed were laid off.

Furthermore, note that the board somehow believed that laying off employees in a time of financial stress, a hardly original business strategy in this day and age, and one presumably only undertaken due to a crisis, was somehow a sign of brilliant leadership.  Again, this is breathtaking.  

I would argue that asserting the CEO has a harder job than the state governor, giving the CEO credit for numerous activities that obviously required the work of many others, while denying her responsibility for financial distress amount to a prolonged logical fallacy, a prolonged appeal to authority.  The argument that whatever the CEO does MUST be brilliant, and its assessment should not be the subject of critical thought.

We Pay What Everyone Else Pays
High Pay is Needed for Recruitment and Retention

Admittedly, Ms Farber's defenders did not belabor these points as much, but, board member Michael Wallace said

'I don't want our leadership and management team wooed away by those monolithic systems willing to pay market compensation, which is a risk if we are not willing to do so.'

 He provided no evidence that this supposedly brilliant group of hired managers was in any danger of being recruited elsewhere.  As we have noted before, the evidence suggests that most top executives are recruited from within the organization, and hence this assertion is at best another kind of logical fallacy, an appeal to common practice.  

The Myth of the Divine Right of CEOs

We have seen again and again how top executives of health care organization, particularly CEOs, are given credit for everything good that happens, while avoiding responsibility for everything bad, and have the ability to continually enrich themselves regardless of the evidence about their personal performance, or about the context in which they work.  

Thus they are treated by those around them as some sort of aristocracy,  just short of omnipotent, minor deities.  In fact, as we wrote here, there is reason to think that some trends in economic thinking, combined, as we wrote here, with some trends in religious, or pseudo-religious thinking, have combined to promote something akin to the "divine right" of CEOs.

Yet CEOs and other health care executives are demonstrably human, and hence flawed.  Furthermore, shielding them from all accountability is a tremendous perverse incentive that is likely to lead to ever more incompetent, self-interested, mission-hostile, and even corrupt leadership.  

Somehow we need to start combating the talking points used to justify the lack of accountability and self-interest of top health care organizational leadership, and ultimately the whole notion of hired managers and executives as super human. 
As a society we need to wake up from our dazed acquiescence to ideas that border on crazy.  We need to challenge rote justifications and talking points for that which makes no sense, but serve to make the powerful more powerful.

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