Friday, April 01, 2011

Logical Fallacies in Support of Payments for Board Members of Non-Profit Health Insurers

The kerfuffle over the huge golden parachute given the departing CEO of an ostensibly non-profit Massachusetts health insurer/ managed care organization continues to evolve (see posts here and here), providing some new insight into governance problems afflicting health care organizations. 

One of the issues that aroused initially aroused concern was that Massachusetts Blue Cross Blue Shield paid the members of its board of trustees substantial amount, an unusual practice for a non-profit organization.  Board members who feel they owe their pay to the CEO they are supposed to be overseeing might be particularly inclined to over pay that same CEO.

Nonetheless, the Boston Globe just reported that other non-profit Massachusetts health insurers were defending their payments to board members:
The state’s second- and third-largest health insurers said yesterday their board members have decided to keep paying themselves five-figure annual fees despite objections from the state attorney general and an inquiry into directors’ compensation at nonprofit health plans.
The rationales for these decisions were fascinating, amounting to four variations of special pleading, plus an appeal to tradition.

Special pleading: Our board members are experienced and independent
'Good governance is advanced by the recruitment and retention of experienced, independent, reasonably compensated directors,' Harvard Pilgrim said in its statement. 'In 2010, our board worked more than 2,000 hours.'

I doubt any non-profit organization would admit to not wanting experienced, independent board members,  but very few other non-profits pay their board members. Asserting that board members of the Massachusetts insurance companies especially deserve pay because of characteristics they share with other members of other boards who are not paid amounts to a special pleading.

The second statement seems just to be a simple exaggeration, since 2000 hours a year implies that the board members work there full-time (40 hours/week * 50 weeks = 2000 hours).  

Special Pleading: Our board members are skilled and experienced
Wellesley-based Harvard Pilgrim, however, said in its statement that board members 'apply their specialized experience and skills in the areas of medicine, accounting, finance and law, to support our company and its mission. Our board serves as responsible, independent fiscal stewards for our members’ premium dollars.'

Again, board members of all sorts of non-profit organizations could be described in similar terms. So using this as an argument for paying board members when members with the same attributes of other boards are not paid is another special pleading.

Special Pleading: Our boards have great responsibility

Tufts, based in Watertown, said its board believes there is 'an additional overlay of responsibility' for directors of a health insurance company.

'Unlike the directors of other nonprofits, they are subject to distinct regulatory considerations,' the Tufts statement said. 'Therefore, compensation for time, commitment and skill of top talent is a responsible approach for the oversight of an organization that provides health care coverage to hundreds of thousands' of members.

Of course, boards of hospitals have their own "distinct regulatory considerations," as do boards of academic institutions  Boards of hospitals are also responsible for the health of their patients and boards of academic institutions are responsible for the education of their students. So this is a third example of a special pleading.

Special Pleading: Our responsibility, our time, our effort
Appeal to Tradition: Our tradition is to pay directors
The history and tradition of nonprofit health plans is to pay [directors] in this state. These are people from various walks of life who bring a skill set. These are not political hacks. . . . It’s because of the responsibility, the time, the effort, and the work you have to put into it. It’s a lot of homework.

It is true that the four non-profit Massachusetts health insurers all apparently did pay their board members, although in many other states, members of the boards of non-profit health insurers were not paid. But in the absence of any further argument that Massachusetts organizations were right when the others were wrong, this amounts to an appeal to tradition.   The rest of this personal statement was again a special pleading. 


Board members of non-profit organizations generally are said to have three duties, as per BoardSource:
- The Duty of Care: "a board member owes the duty to exercise reasonable care when he or she makes a decision as a steward of the organization."
- The Duty of Loyalty: "a board member must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization. This means that a board member can never use information obtained as a member for personal gain, but must act in the best interests of the organization."
- The Duty of Obedience: "The duty of obedience requires board members to be faithful to the organization's mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals of the organization."

The notion that boards stewarding non-profit organizations, including health care organizations, have these core responsibilities seems to have become increasingly ignored and forgotten in an increasingly commercialized health care environment.  Simply fulfilling these duties should not be regarded as exceptional board service, and certainly not so exceptional as to require pay.  The fallacious arguments made on behalf of lucrative payments given to members of the boards of two of the more highly regarded non-profit health insurance corporations in the country indicate how low governance and stewardship of health care organizations has sunk.

Again, we need governance of health care organization by people who understand their fundamental duties, who are willing to be accountable, and who put their organizations' mission ahead of personal gain. 

Those who profess concern about the stewardship of health care need not go far to find examples of fundamental misconceptions about what such stewardship involves.  We need to restore core values of governance to our health care organizations. 


InformaticsMD said...

Perhaps these "special pleadings" should be viewed from the perspective of a "superclass" or "executive's guild" of privileged people who do believe themselves to be "special."

From that perspective, they make perfect sense.

-- SS

JPB said...


Afraid said...

The result will now be that ALL board/trustees will be paid a minimum of these published compensation reports.

Then compensation will increase 10 to 20% a year to very large levels based on the reasoning that all board members at an institution are exemplary.

These are the rules of the game and no one is changing these rules.