Friday, May 04, 2012

From Serving the Poor to Paying Executives Millions - Carolinas HealthCare System

A striking contrast between a large health care organization's historic mission and its current practices appeared in a series published by the Charlotte News-Observer called "Prognosis: Profits" about the Carolinas HealthCare System.

A Historical Mission to Serve the Poor

The system evolved from a public hospital meant to serve the poor.  In particular,(1)
Only 30 years ago, it was a charity hospital called Charlotte Memorial – a crowded, dreary place that lost money every year because most of its patients couldn’t pay their bills.
The hospital system is actually "a public, tax-exempt entity called a hospital authority". Because of this special status, it has the power of eminent domain, the ability to seize property albeit with compensation, and its employees have "more privacy protection that those of other public agencies."

However, in the "greed is good" 1980s, the hospital began a transformation,
The board hired [Harry] Nurkin in 1981 to revamp Charlotte Memorial’s image, attract paying patients and avoid the fate of struggling public hospitals in Atlanta and Chicago.

Until then, patients with insurance mostly chose Presbyterian Hospital or Mercy Hospital, with stately buildings at the edge of Myers Park.

With a vision of building one of the Southeast’s finest medical centers, Nurkin paid attention to details, such as wallpaper, plants and furniture. And he put the hospital in the black by improving collections from patients and insurers.

In 1983, when Nurkin unveiled the hospital’s first long-range plan, some board members sat in wonder at a slide show that accompanied his bold outline, according to 'A Great Public Compassion,' a book by writer Jerry Shinn.

The plan called for a heart institute, a doctors’ building and an 11-story, $40 million tower that would replace a 1940s wing. All of that came true – and more.

Now a Huge Hospital System

From those humble origins, Carolinas HealthCare System has now become(2)
a juggernaut. It’s now the country’s second-largest public hospital system, behind only the nationwide system of Veterans Affairs hospitals.

One of the benefits of that growth is access to quality medical care. Carolinas HealthCare offers one of five organ transplant programs in the state and operates the region’s most comprehensive trauma center, where accident victims frequently arrive via medical helicopter. Five-year-old Levine Children’s Hospital has brought new pediatric specialties to Charlotte, and Levine Cancer Institute has recruited specialists from such respected institutions as the Cleveland Clinic.

With nearly $7 billion in annual revenue, Carolinas HealthCare runs about 30 hospitals and owns more than $1 billion worth of property in Mecklenburg County alone. It has more than $2 billion in investments.

In the five-year period ending in 2011, it spent $1.8 billion on capital projects.

Forgetting the Mission: Suing Poor Patients

However, as the system grew, its mission seems to have been forgotten.

In particular, Carolinas HealthCare seems to now have a penchant for suing poor patients who cannot pay its bills. A Charlotte Observer article documented that while the hospital does not refuse poor patients care, it may later pursue them if they cannot pay. The article noted the case of a woman who was assured that the hospital had funds to pay for patients like her, but who then faced a lawsuit for $34,000 and a lien on her house. In general(3)
most N.C. hospitals are tax-exempt – a distinction that saves them millions each year. In exchange, these nonprofits are expected to provide financial help to those without the means to pay.

But thousands of times a year, hospitals are suing patients instead, an investigation by the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh found.

An in-depth look at some of those cases suggests most of the patients were uninsured, and that a significant number of them should have qualified for free hospital care.

Critics contend those hospitals are financially ruining people they could afford to help. Carolinas HealthCare System, the multibillion-dollar public enterprise that owns CMC-Mercy, has generated average annual profits of more than $300 million over the past three years.

During the five years ending in 2010, N.C. hospitals filed more than 40,000 lawsuits to collect on bills.

Most of those suits were filed by just two entities: Carolinas HealthCare and Wilkes Regional Medical Center in North Wilkesboro. Each filed more than 12,000 suits over the five-year period, according to state courts data. Wilkes Regional, which is managed by Carolinas HealthCare, appears to be the state’s most litigious individual hospital.

In addition,
Often, the lawsuits hit people who are among those paying the highest rates for hospital care: the uninsured. Bills for uninsured patients are usually higher because they don’t have insurance companies to negotiate discounts on their behalf.

It’s unclear how many of the patients sued in North Carolina lacked health insurance and substantial income or assets. But in interviews with 25 of those patients, the newspapers found 17 of them were uninsured; 10 said they were never told about the hospitals’ financial assistance programs.

An editorial summarized the contrast between Carolinas HealthCare historic mission and its current practices(4)
Carolinas HealthCare, once a small, struggling operation, has become one of the top hospital systems in the country. Novant Health, owner of Presbyterian Hospital, has grown into a powerful and respected health care provider. Their successes have come thanks to an aggressive philosophy of accumulation and growth, which has led to patients in the Charlotte region having access to the latest in medical technology and research, as well as top doctors in a diversity of medical fields.

But that accumulation has contributed to the high cost of health care in North Carolina, and that growth has caused the hospitals to stray at times from their non-profit charitable mission. A Charlotte Observer and News & Observer investigation that begins today details how a hunger for money and power has caused the two hospitals to sometimes lose their way, contributing to the region’s health care cost woes and leaving thousands of patients with financially crippling bills.

Opaque, Unaccountable Governance

While the Charlotte Observer did not provide opinions about the reasons that this large health care organization appears to have forgotten its raison d'etre, its reporting suggests some familiar elements.

The governance of the organization may have been appropriate for a small, struggling public hospital, but as the system grew, lack of accountability and transparency may have become more important. It is easier to lose one's way when no one is observing one's actions.(1)
Most hospital business gets done quietly – until there is a well-planned announcement.

The system’s self-perpetuating board includes top community and business leaders whose nominations get approval from the Mecklenburg commissioners’ chairman.

Quarterly hospital system board meetings, at 7 a.m., are polite and scripted. Votes are unanimous on everything from building new hospitals to borrowing millions of dollars. Questions are worked out in private discussions, closed-door committee meetings or executive sessions.

Meetings aren’t widely publicized. Except for a couple of newspaper reporters, only board members and hospital officials attend. Future meeting dates are provided to those who attend board meetings or call the system’s main office.

State law requires public organizations with websites to post meeting times. Carolinas HealthCare had not been doing that until last week, after an Observer reporter asked about it.

The board’s agenda sets no time for public comment.

While operating so quietly, the board appears to have become a very cozy little group,
The 1943 hospital authority law intentionally kept elected officials and politics out of operations. The link is that the commissioners’ chairman must sign off on hospital board nominees.

It has been a rubber stamp.

County officials remember once in 30 years that a proposed board member was rejected. That was in 2008 when nominees included Gloria Pace King, who had been ousted as CEO of the United Way of the Central Carolinas because of public outcry over her $2 million pension package.

In December 2008, the board renominated King for a new term. But hospital officials say Roberts, then commissioners’ chairwoman, objected, and King wasn’t reappointed.

Over the years, the board has included city leaders, such as bank CEOs Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield, and Stuart Dickson, the retired head of the company that owns Harris Teeter. His father, Rush S. Dickson, was an original board member whose name is on the entrance to what is now Carolinas Medical Center.

Lavish CEO Compensation

As noted earlier, not only are the actions of the hospital system's governing body kept secret, but up to recently, compensation paid to all employees, including top executives was also secret.(1)
State law gives its employees more privacy protection than those of other public agencies.

For example, salaries of all state, county and city government employees are public. That’s not true for public hospital employees.

Until a 2009 change in state law, Carolinas HealthCare had for years refused to make public the total compensation for top executives. They said state law precluded them from disclosing more than basic salary.

As a result, the public hospital system wasn’t disclosing as much detail as its private counterpart, Novant Health, does in publicly available reports to the IRS.

At the urging of the Observer and other state newspapers, legislators broadened the law in 2009 to require disclosure of total compensation for top executives at public hospitals.

So it should not be any surprise that an opaque, unaccountable board run by a cozy group of insiders saw fit to allow its friends in the management make some money, a lot of money. The Charlotte Observer reported that there were nine hired managers with total compensation greater than $1 million in 2011.(5)
Michael Tarwater
CEO, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Joseph Piemont
President/Chief Operating Officer,
Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Greg Gombar
CFO, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Laurence Hinsdale
Executive Vice President, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Paul Franz
Executive Vice President, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Dennis Phillips
Executive Vice President, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

John Knox
Chief Administrative Officer, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Roger Ray
Chief Medical Officer, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:
No data for prior year

Russ Guerin
Executive Vice President, Carolinas HealthCare System
Total 2011 compensation:
Percentage increase over prior year:

Should it be surprising that executives who can become so rich, and who are subject to so little oversight, are more interested in preserving the hospital system's operating margin which supports their wealth than in providing the care to poor people that was the hospital system's original reason to exist?


As the local NAACP pointed out, the hospital system should better uphold its mission(6)
'The Bible says we’re not supposed to burden the poor and the sick and the afflicted. We’re supposed to lift them and help them and heal them,' NAACP President the Rev. William Barber said during the Charlotte stop of a statewide tour designed to bring attention to the struggles of low-income people. '(Carolinas HealthCare) is a group with money hounding people who are just trying to make it.'

However, I submit that restoration of this organization's mission will require more than exhortation. The governance of this organization, like that of many others we have discussed, needs to regain accountability, transparency, integrity, and ethics. It must insist that the leaders it hires uphold the mission ahead of other concerns, particularly personal enrichment. It must provide these leaders with realistic incentives based on how well they uphold this mission, not on revenue or operating margin.

Until such changes are accomplished, expect this hospital system, like many other health care organizations, to contribute only to our ever rising prices, declining access, and stagnating health care quality.


1.  Garloch K, Alexander A. Carolinas HealthCare System's evoluation: public hospital with private attitude.  Charlotte Observer, April 21, 2012.  Link here.
2. Alexander A, Garloch K, Neff J. Nonprofit hospitals thrive on profits. Charlotte Observer, April 21, 2012. Link here.
3. Alexander A, Raynor D. Hospital suits force new pain on patients. Charlotte Observer, April 23, 2012. Link here.
4. Anonymous. Money over mission at non-profit hospitals. Charlotte Observer, April 22, 2012. Link here.
5. Anonymous. Million-dollar hospital executives in North Carolina. Charlotte Observer, April 21, 2012. Link here.
6. Alexander A. Stop suing patients, NAACP tells Carolinas HealthCare System. Charlotte Observer, May 2, 2012. Link here.


Anonymous said...

Recently there have been a number of articles highlighting how foundations have deviated from their original mission.

A university was recently sued for return of an endowment as money was not being spent on education but salaries and buildings.

A religious denomination was sued when money donated for mission work was again spent on salaries and buildings.

Recently we have seen the trend of the wealthy to spend their assets on the programs they support and not allow their money to be diverted creating an institution whose only purpose is to sel perpetuate.

Steve Lucas

Judy B said...

One wonders if there is any medical center that isn't pariticipating in these money games? I think that many of us know what needs to be done but how is another matter. Compensation for executives (and board members) must be reduced substantially to reasonable levels if the medical care system is to survive...

Benita Blocker said...

I just discovered your CHS article. I am trying to promote my CHS story as a former employee as well. Thanks. Link: