Monday, July 02, 2012

Fool Us Once, Shame on You, Fool Us Twice, Shame on Us - The Untrustworthy Pronouncements of Aetna's Former CEOs

A small tempest in the larger US health care reform teapot was produced a few weeks ago when Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna, declared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he no longer supported the health insurance mandate.  The "mandate" for all US citizens to buy health insurance, actually a relatively small tax that would be imposed on people without health insurance, was the central point of contention in the lawsuit before the US Supreme Court challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

Immediate Past-CEO of Aetna Ron Williams' Abrupt Change of Mind on the Individual Mandate

Williams wrote,
Soon the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. I am not a lawyer, or an expert on the Constitution. But as the chairman and CEO of a major health plan, I had a ringside seat to the entire health-care reform process. After much reflection, I have concluded that the federal individual mandate, which requires all Americans to purchase health insurance starting in 2014, will not be upheld.

On this, Williams was soon proven wrong. The Supreme Court upheld the law. However, the tempest was not due just to Williams' reversal of his former opinion, but the role he actually played in pushing his former opinion into the passage of the law, which was really far more than being a "ringside" spectator.

In an August 24, 2009 article, "Aetna's Ron Williams on Health Reform," Forbes' Dan Whelan noted,
Williams, 59, is taking a surprisingly visible role in arguing for change in the health care system. He has met with Obama a half-dozen times (he shrugs off the surname gaffe), has testified four times in front of Senate committees this year and participates in shindigs set up by the many trade groups for which he's a director.

Williams' position echoes that of the HMO industry generally: He's against a government-run plan but favors universal coverage and forcing insurers to take all comers.

As Wendell Potter, the former head of public relations for large health for-profit health insurance company Cigna, who is now a strong industry critic, put it on his blog,
Ron Williams who possibly more than anyone else had persuaded the President to reconsider his campaign pledge to enact reform without making people buy coverage from a private insurer. Candidate Obama’s reform platform differed from those of Hillary Clinton’s and John Edwards’ in only one significant way: both Clinton and Edwards embraced the mandate, which Williams was championing, first behind the scenes and then publicly, on behalf of the insurance industry. Candidate Obama said he didn’t believe it was right for people to be forced to buy something they couldn’t afford.

Williams was the industry’s most visible CEO on Capitol Hill during the debate on reform. He testified at numerous congressional hearings about how essential it was to move the millions of uninsured Americans into private health insurance plans and how an individual mandate was necessary to make that happen. He also never missed an opportunity to trash the idea of a 'public option' to compete with private insurance companies, which candidate Obama had said was essential 'to keep private insurers honest.'

Capitol Hill was not the only place Williams was frequenting during the reform debate. In an August 2009 article in Forbes, Williams was quoted as saying that he already had met with the President six times. When I called the White House to confirm that, a top aide told me it was true Williams had been there many times, adding, 'We’ve found him to be one of the more reasonable ones.'

Williams' recent seeming disavowal of the individual mandate raises the question of why anyone, much less President Obama, trusted him in the first place. After all, he was CEO of Aetna.

2001 Aetna CEO John Rowe Blamed Everyone Else for Health Care Problems

In fact, perusal of my memory, and a few file folders suggested several previous cases in which Aetna CEOs issued pronouncements that should not have been trusted.

First I recalled a meeting in 2001 at Brown during which the then Aetna CEO was honored by giving the Paul Levinger Lecture on "Good Health: Can We Afford It?" (See original Brown news release here.) My memory is that of Dr Rowe blaming just about everybody other than the for-profit health care insurance companies for health care's ills. A Brown Daily Herald article (not currently on line, Baskin B. Health care getting harder to afford, Aetna chief tells Brown U. Brown Daily Herald, November 30, 2001) recounted him blaming "cost inflation," (presumably due to doctors and hospitals), and employers, for whom "quality doesn't matter." He only allowed that insurers were to blame for not giving "better service," but not either rising costs or poor quality. I also recall Dr Rowe being treated with great respect by the audience. After all, this was a prestigious lecture.

However, his talk seemed just the least bit self-serving. If the audience had been aware of his record at the time, maybe we would have been more skeptical.

Mount Sinai CEO Dr John Rowe Extolled Merger with New York University, Jumped to Become Aetna CEO as Merger Began to Fail

By 1993, Dr Rowe was CEO of Mount Sinai Medical Center, and was seemingly at the vanguard of the movement for health care CEOs to be paid a lot. The New York Times reported that the 1993 Chronicle of Philanthropy survey showed him to be the country's best paid non-profit CEO, bringing in total compensation of over $800,000 in 1993 dollars. By 1998, Dr Rowe's big project was pushing concentration of power in health care in the form of a proposed merger between New York University Medical Center and Mount Sinai. According to the New York Times, the plan would be for Dr Rowe to become CEO of the combined entity. At the time, he said,
The advantages of merging hospitals are so great, they far outweigh any hypothetical potential negative impact.

The bond issue needed to finance the merger, however, ran into trouble by early 2000.  Soon after that, Dr Rowe seemingly demonstrated his lack of faith in it by jumping to the leadership of Aetna. It turned out, according to the Hartford Courant, Aetna's offer was just to rich to turn down.
Rowe got a $2 million sign-on bonus to leave Mount Sinai NYU Health and become chief executive of Aetna's health business, the document says. He will also get a $1.4 million retention bonus on July 3, 2001.

Both bonuses are designed to replace money that Rowe forfeited by leaving the giant New York hospital system, Aetna spokeswoman Joyce Oberdorf said.

In addition, Rowe will get an annual salary of at least $1 million and an annual bonus of $1 million to $3 million, depending on how well goals are met, under a three-year employment agreement with two possible one-year extensions.

Rowe, who already received 25,000 shares of restricted Aetna stock and options on 500,000 shares, will get another 100,000 options. The new options will be granted when Aetna spins off its health business to shareholders, or on Jan. 1, 2001 -- whichever comes first. The exercise price will be about $72.73, or whatever price Aetna stock is trading at the time if it's higher than that.

By 2001, the New York Times referred to the merger as existing "in name only." That year, the campuses resumed separate administration. The merger was officially terminated in 2008. Its failure was documented in an Academic Medicine article. (Kastor JA. Failure of the merger of the Mount Sinai and New York University hospitals and medical schools: part 2. Acad Med 2010; 85: 1828-32. Link here.)

If the Brown audience had known that the merger Dr Rowe extolled with such confidence was already failing, but that he was able to leverage his role in its development to go from the country's best paid non-profit CEO to a multi-million dollar a year insurance CEO, maybe we would have felt less guilt about our responsibility for health care's high cost, low access and poor quality.

Aetna CEO Richard Huber's Failure to "Walk the Walk"

In fact, searching through the files showed an even earlier example of an Aetna CEO talking out of two sides of his mouth.

By 1998, an American Medical News article documented the "rocky relations" between Aetna and physicians. By early 2000, Aetna CEO Richard Huber was known as "the managed care executive physicians love to hate," per the American Medical News. His departure was characterized by then American Medical News Street Smarts columnist Dr Scott Gottlieb, as partly due to how
Huber talked out of one side of his mouth about his company's obsessive quest for 'quality' health care -- while out of the other he was screaming at doctors, hospitals and drug firms about controlling costs. Yet Aetna's medical costs were still creeping up. As Richard Huber learned, you can't talk the talk if you don't walk the walk.


So the unreliability of recent Aetna CEO Ron Williams' advocacy of the "patient mandate," was presaged by similarly untrustworthy pronouncement by two former Aetna CEOs. In each case, the remarks of the particular CEO seemed more designed to promote his immediate self-interest than to provide trustworthy opinion or policy advice.

By the way, this summary should not be viewed as particularly an indictment of Aetna. I am sure I could find equally untrustworthy but self-serving pronouncements from the leaders of many other health care organizations. (Recall the visionary pronouncements of the failed and ultimately jailed CEO of the now vanished Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, see post here.)

The recent Ron Williams reversal should serve, however, as a stark reminder that we, meaning physicians, other health care professionals, those who study health care and health policy, policy makers, and the public at large, should be very, very skeptical about any pronouncements about health policy by top executives of health care organizations. They as a group have shown themselves to be remarkably good at doing whatever it takes to buttress their immediate self-interest, including making apparently oracular but ultimately foolish policy pronouncements.

The real question is why these pronouncements continue to be treated with reverence, if not as "visionaries,"  by health care professionals, health care and policy researchers, the news media, health care and medical journals, policy makers, politicians, and the public at large? Why has hardly anyone, besides yours truly, gone back to check the accuracy of their previous pontifications before swooning over their latest ones? Why has hardly anyone examined the accuracy of their predecessors' opinions, given that most executives these days seem to be subject to the same incentives to make things look good in the short term, and never mind the consequences?


Gregg Masters said...

I'd give Mark T Bertolini aka @mtbert a shot. Completely agree about @Aetna history. Times have changed. The traditional health plan model is toast. Bertolini gets it. We'll see if the Board gives him the time and room to manage the transformation.

psimon846 said...

Seems to me this is more of an indication of the bias amongst those in leadership of Brown Med than Aetna CEO's.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

"Gregg Masters" -

One can hope. On the other hand, we have seen lots of new CEOs come in with lots of hype, only to turn out not to deserve. Time will tell, but frequently, as the Who once sang, "here comes the new boss, same as the old boss."

"PSimon846" - Brown surely bears some responsibility for its choice of speakers.