Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Severance Package to an Un-Severed CEO - A Manifestation of "CEO Disease?"

The latest jaw-dropping story about executive compensation in health care has been unfolding in California, but at least now I have a diagnosis for this syndrome. 

A Generous Retirement Package, Paid Before Retirement

In April, the Los Angeles Times reported about the generous retirement package given to an outgoing public hospital district CEO in California:
When he turned 65 two years ago, Samuel Downing received a $3-million retirement payment from a public hospital district in Salinas, Calif., where he serves as president and chief executive.

But Downing continued working at his $668,000-a-year job for another two years, and after he retires this week, he will receive another payment of nearly $900,000. That comes on top of his regular pension of $150,000 a year.

Note that not only was this pension package large in an absolute sense, but it was provided before the CEO actually retired. This compensation was clearly out of the ordinary:
The payments amount to one of the more generous pension packages granted to a public official in California and come amid growing debate about 'supplemental' pensions that some officials receive on top of their basic retirement benefits.

Though Downing's case is extreme, it follows the disclosure of extra pension benefits received by employees in municipalities including Bell and San Diego. Earlier this year, a state watchdog group called for stricter pension rules, saying California's retirement plans are 'dangerously underfunded, the result of overly generous benefit promises, wishful thinking and an unwillingness to plan prudently.' Seventy percent of Californians support a cap on pensions for current and future government workers, according to a recent Los Angeles Times/USC Poll.

Furthermore, there was a disconnect between the size of the pension payments and the hospital district's financial situation:
But the $3.9 million in supplemental retirement payments to Downing has come during a period of cutbacks at the hospital, including the reduction of 600 positions through layoffs and attrition.

Hospital representatives said the cuts were mainly a response to recent economic conditions. The hospital has faced declining revenues and patient admissions and has been burdened by construction costs of a state-mandated retrofit project, they said.

Hospital district apologists had the usual excuses: the pensions reflected the market, and the CEO is brilliant:
Officials at the Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System defended the payouts, saying they need to pay private-sector-level benefits to retain top talent. They described Downing as a gifted and experienced administrator.

'I think I've earned it,' Downing said in an interview. 'I've stayed here out of my commitment to try to build a great hospital.... I worked for this institution and gave them my heart and soul.'

As usual, left unsaid were how the CEO's "brilliance" was justified, other than by his own assertion, and why the CEO deserved so much credit for the performance of a hospital system that employed many other people.

A Generous Severance Package, Paid to Someone Still Employed 

Yesterday, it turned out that there was even more to Mr Downing's compensation. As again reported by the Los Angeles Times,
A Salinas public hospital district, already under fire for granting its outgoing chief executive $3.9 million in retirement payments, also gave him nearly $1 million as part of an unusual severance agreement, according to records obtained by The Times.

The payment fattened what was already considered one of the more generous public pensions ever given in California. Its disclosure prompted the state Assembly earlier this month to order an audit of the hospital district's finances.

The Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System board gave Samuel Downing a cash payment of $947,594 in 2008, according to a hospital report on his compensation. The money came from a special severance fund set aside for when Downing ended his employment with the agency.

But the board decided to award him the money while he was still CEO.

By the time Downing retired last month, he had received a series of supplemental retirement benefits totaling $3.9 million, in addition to the severance payment. He will also be paid a regular pension of $150,000 a year. He earned about $670,000 in base salary during his final years of employment, along with other benefits such as a car allowance and paid time off.

The details of how the CEO became entitled to this severance agreement, and how a severance payment was made to someone whose employment was not severed was sketchy:
Salinas Valley officials said the severance payment stemmed from a handshake agreement in the 1980s between Downing and a previous president of the board of directors. In 2000, the hospital's board agreed to a contract in which Downing would be paid 18 months' salary upon the end of his employment. In 2008, the board voted to give Downing that money, which totaled nearly $948,000.

It's unclear exactly why the board of directors decided to grant Downing the cash-out. The five board members, who are elected at-large by residents of the hospital district, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Mr Downing, of course, once again asserted he deserved the money:
Downing said he felt he deserved the pay after a long and successful career at the hospital, where he started in 1972.

'It sounds like a lot of money to everybody … but I know what the industry is and I know the board did an independent study,' he said. 'The board did an excellent job. They made sure we had competitive salaries.'

Once again, a hospital district public relations person went to bat for him, by blaming previous board members:
A hospital district spokeswoman released a statement Wednesday saying the current hospital directors were 'obligated by a previous board' to pay out Downing's severance.

At least no one so far is claiming that this part of Mr Downing's compensation was determined by the almighty "market." In fact,
But several outside experts said it is unusual for an entity to award severance to someone who remains an employee.

Typically, they said, severance is promised to employees only in the event that they are pushed out of their jobs. Downing's severance was also atypical because he was entitled to it even if he retired of his own accord rather than being forced to leave.

'It's absolutely outside of the industry standard to pay a severance upon retirement,' said Jeff Christenson, a compensation consultant at the firm Integrated Healthcare Strategies. 'The theory of severance pay is to protect an executive or an employee from an unforeseen termination.'

And of course the severance was not even paid on retirement, but paid while Mr Downing was still working.

Summary - A Manifestation of "CEO Disease?"

Once again we see how top health care leaders are different from you and me.  Despite the fact that executives are paid employees, they seem to be entitled to special treatment far beyond that afforded other employees.  While the modern treatment of health care executives as minor deities seemed to start in the private health care sector, it seems to be extending even into government.

It turns out, over 20 years ago, the BusinessWeek cover story was entitled "CEO Disease."  It summarized the pathology that now seems to be the major cause of health care system dysfunction.  Yet the warning still goes largely unheeded:
Pampered, protected, and perked, the American CEO can know every indulgence. The executive who finally reaches the top of a major corporation enters an exclusive fraternity. The CEO's judgment and presence are eagerly sought by other captains of industry and policymakers. CEOs zip around the world in private jets and cash the heftiest personal paychecks in industry. They take home 85 times what the average blue-collar worker makes, unlike their counterparts in Japan, where the ratio is closer to 10 to 1 (page 60). [That was in 1991.  For larger US companies, the ratio was 343 in 2010.  See this link. -Editor]

It is a job that can easily go to one's head--and often does. 'Too many people treat CEOs as some kind of exalted, omnipotent leader,' says John Sculley, CEO of Apple Computer Inc. 'The real danger is that you start believing that stuff.' Sculley took a sabbatical in 1988 as a way of "reacquainting myself with the fact that I'm a mere mortal."

Many chief executives come to believe that they are much more than that. The perquisites and deferences create a protective cocoon--if not a full-fledged fantasy world--for the chieftains of some of the nation's largest companies. 'Many CEOs take on a level of self-importance that goes way beyond reality,' says Douglas D. Danforth, former CEO of Westinghouse Electric Corp. and now a director at several large corporations. 'They view the company as their own . . . . Some people's personalities change completely. If you're not careful, you can be seduced.'

Call it CEO Disease. The symptoms are all too familiar: The boss doesn't seem to understand the business anymore. Decisions come slowly, only to be abruptly changed. He (there are only two women CEOs in the BUSINESS WEEK 1000) feels he can do no wrong and refuses to concede any mistake. He begins to surround himself with sycophants in senior management and on the board.

TELLTALE SIGNS. Increasingly, the boss may seem out of touch--spending too much time away from the job, playing the role of statesman for the sake of personal recognition. He may even compete with industry counterparts over how much money he makes, how big the headquarters building is, or how many corporate jets are parked on the landing strip. And when it's time to leave the job, the boss just hangs on, often by undermining potential successors.

In 1991, the BusinessWeek article suggested some ways to prevent CEO disease. In 20 years, these suggestions have been largely ignored in health care corporations, and in the larger health care system and the surrounding economy:
A few fairly simple reforms would go a long way toward preventing many cases of CEO Disease, at least in its most virulent form. One obvious answer is to disperse decision-making. An advantage of this approach is that it focuses attention on a group of executives, not just the CEO.

The prevalence of the problem also makes an overwhelming case for more involvement at the board level. To be effective, boards must be composed of a sizable percentage of outside directors who have the time to learn enough about a company and its management to make informed decisions about its leadership.

If the boss isn't receptive and problems mount, a responsible director has no choice but to press for change. On four separate occasions since he started serving on boards, Jewel's Perkins says, 'I've sat down with the CEO and said: `In my judgment, you've made the contribution you can to this organization.' Three CEOs took early retirement.

Ultimately, the power to prevent, and if necessary, cure CEO Disease rests with the shareholders. They have the right, and the duty, to insist on a board of competent and aggressive outsiders. At least, they do in theory. In reality, shareholders are often either passive, indifferent, or only invested in the stock on a short-term basis.

CEO disease would seem to be an explanation for why a public hospital district gave an outlandish retirement package and a severance payment to a CEO who was still in office. CEO disease would describe much of the bad management we have described on this blog.

So, as I have said before,.... 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.

If we do not fix the severe problems affecting the leadership and governance of health care, and do not increase accountability, integrity and transparency of health care leadership and governance, we will be as much to blame as the leaders when the system collapses.

We need to launch a crash program to prevent CEO disease and cure existing cases, before it kills off our health care system. 


Seven Signs said...

I would bet this hospital has all seven signs of ethical collapse, which means they are already collapsed.

JPB said...

Bravo, keep telling it like is! We will ALL suffer if our medical care industry crashes....

Afraid said...

They laugh at us.