Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Health Care CEO Who Didn't Put His Own Pay First

We recently posted about executives at two different not-for-profit health care insurance companies/ managed care organizations whose pay seemed to keep levitating, despite organizational financial losses, and commented on how the compensation of top executives of health care organizations seems always to go up, regardless of the financial fortunes, or quality of the products or services provided by their organizations. (Posts here and here.)

Today's Boston Globe, however, provided a contrast. The background is that the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), a renowned Harvard teaching institution, is facing a budget shortfall.

Paul Levy, the guy who runs Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was standing in Sherman Auditorium the other day, before some of the very people to whom he might soon be sending pink slips.

In the days before the meeting, Levy had been walking around the hospital, noticing little things.

He stood at the nurses' stations, watching the transporters, the people who push the patients around in wheelchairs. He saw them talk to the patients, put them at ease, make them laugh. He saw that the people who push the wheelchairs were practicing medicine.

He noticed the same when he poked his head into the rooms and watched as the people who deliver the food chatted up the patients and their families.

He watched the people who polish the corridors, who strip the sheets, who empty the trash cans, and he realized that a lot of them are immigrants, many of them had second jobs, most of them were just scraping by.

And so Paul Levy had all this bouncing around his brain the other day when he stood in Sherman Auditorium.

He looked out into a sea of people and recognized faces: technicians, secretaries, administrators, therapists, nurses, the people who are the heart and soul of any hospital. People who knew that Beth Israel had hired about a quarter of its 8,000 staff over the last six years and that the chances that they could all keep their jobs and benefits in an economy in freefall ranged between slim and none.

'I want to run an idea by you that I think is important, and I'd like to get your reaction to it,' Levy began. 'I'd like to do what we can to protect the lower-wage earners - the transporters, the housekeepers, the food service people. A lot of these people work really hard, and I don't want to put an additional burden on them.'

'Now, if we protect these workers, it means the rest of us will have to make a bigger sacrifice,' he continued. 'It means that others will have to give up more of their salary or benefits.'

He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when Sherman Auditorium erupted in applause. Thunderous, heartfelt, sustained applause.

The editorialist's conclusion was:

Paul Levy is trying something revolutionary, radical, maybe even impossible: He is trying to convince the people who work for him that the E in CEO can sometimes stand for empathy.

Note that Levy is one of the few health care CEOs who blogs, and he appears to write his blog on his own, unfettered by public relations flacks or risk-averse lawyers. His discussion of his revolutionary plan is here.

Further note the context in which he is working. While his medical center does not seem to receive particularly payments from insurance companies and managed care organizations, a previously secret agreement between the previous CEO of Partners Healthcare, another renowned, but competing Harvard-affiliated medical system and the previous CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the state's biggest, and not-for-profit health care insurer/ managed care organization awarded much higher payments to that health care system (see posts here and here). And the current CEO of that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts just received (see this post) a substantial raise, enough to make him the best paid health care CEO in the state, while his organization's revenues and membership decreased.

This case shows it is possible for a health care CEO to put the organization's mission, and the welfare and morale of its hard working staff ahead of his own remuneration. If only this example were not so rare.

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