MetroHealth CEO Airica Steed, EdD, RN, is suspending supplemental and one-time bonus programs that led to the firing of former CEO Akram Boutros, MD, Cleveland.com reported March 14.
Dr. Steed also told Cuyahoga County Council that new safeguards are being put in place after Dr. Boutros was accused of taking $1.9 million in what the health system’s board called “improper bonuses,” according to the report.
The plan outlined by Dr. Steed includes a national search to fill several critical executive roles, including a human resources officer who will ensure the department is thoroughly involved in compensation matters going forward, according to the report. Dr. Steed said that structure was not previously in place.
The system is also seeking a permanent CFO after Craig Richmond resigned from the role, according to the report. Geoff Himes, the health system’s former vice president of finance, is serving as interim CFO.
The plan also calls for creating a workplace culture where “no one is afraid to speak up if they’re not sure what’s being asked of them is the right thing to do,” according to the report.
A report from the accounting firm BDO at the request of the system’s board found that Dr. Boutros paid himself $1.9 million in unauthorized bonuses and concealed the actions from the board, according to Cleveland.com. He was fired in November after the payments came to light. He was set to retire at the end of 2022.
The BDO report said Dr. Boutros created the Supplemental Performance Based Variable Compensation/Supplemental Incentive Compensation program without involving the human resources department. Former CFO Mr. Richmond allegedly forwarded details of the program down the chain for payroll approval without confirming there had been board approval.
Dr. Boutros’ attorney Jason Bristol sent a letter to Cuyahoga County Council alleging the BDO report is “biased, inaccurate and seriously flawed,” according to Cleveland.com. Mr. Bristol argued the report contained no supporting evidence for the assertion Dr. Boutros secretly created a bonus program. He also said Mr. Richmond resigned because he believed the report “inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading,” citing a letter released by Mr. Richmond’s attorney. Mr. Richmond resigned two days before the report was released.
Dr. Boutros has filed multiple lawsuits since his firing. He filed a lawsuit Nov. 28 in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, alleging violations of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act and the board bylaws. Dr. Boutros also alleges board retaliation and accuses the MetroHealth board of violating the law in its hiring of Dr. Steed. Dr. Boutros filed a separate lawsuit against the health system in December alleging breach of contract. He has repaid the system $2.1 million for the bonuses and interest.
This week, a health system CFO referenced the thoughts we shared last week about many hospitals rethinking physician employment models, and looking to pull back on employing more doctors, given current financial challenges. He said, “We’ve employed more and more doctors in the hope that we’re building a group that will allow us to pivot to total cost management.
But we can’t get risk, so we’ve justified the ‘losses’ on physician practices by thinking we’re making it up with the downstream volume the medical group delivers.
But the reality now is that we’re losing money on most of that downstream business. If we just keep adding doctors that refer us services that don’t make a margin, it’s not helping us.”
While his comment has myriad implications for the physician organization, it also highlights a broader challenge we’ve heard from many health system executives: a smaller and smaller portion of the business is responsible for the overall system margin.
While the services that comprise the still-profitable book vary by organization (NICU, cardiac procedures, some cancer management, complex orthopedics, and neurosurgery are often noted), executives have been surprised how quickly some highly profitable service lines have shifted. One executive shared, “Orthopedics used to be our most profitable service line. But with rising labor costs and most of the commercial surgeries shifting outpatient, we’re losing money on at least half of it.”
These conversations highlight the flaws in the current cross-subsidy based business model. Rising costs, new competitors, and a challenging contracting environment have accelerated the need to find new and sustainable models to deliver care, plan for growth and footprint—and find a way to get paid that aligns with that future vision.
Less than 15 percent of board members overseeing the nation’s top hospitals have a professional background in healthcare, while more than half have a background in finance or business services, according to a study published Feb. 8 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The study’s authors represent Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. They wrote that they sought to understand which professions are represented most among hospital boards because they may influence the organization’s goals and overall strategy — there also had been little research done around the topic previously.
The study began in July by examining the 20 top-rated hospitals by US News & World Report in 2022, which are all nonprofit academic medical centers in urban areas.
Only 15 of the 20 facilities publish board information online, and IRS filings for the remaining were incomplete or outdated.
For the 15 hospitals that provide information on their board members, the authors sorted their professional backgrounds across 11 industry sectors using the North American Industry Classification System, which is the federal standard. For board members with healthcare backgrounds, they were further categorized as trained physicians, nurses, or other workers.
Four key takeaways:
1. At the 15 examined hospitals, there were 567 board members. The study was able to sort 529 into professional categories.
2. Among the 529 board members, 44 percent had a background in finance. Among them, more than 80 percent led private equity funds, wealth management firms, or multinational banks. The remainder were in real estate (14.7 percent) or insurance (5.2 percent).
3. The second and third most common sectors were health services (16.4 percent) and professional and business services (12.6 percent).
4. Across the 15 hospitals, 14.6 percent of board members were healthcare professionals — primarily physicians (13.3 percent) and followed by nurses (0.9 percent).
The study noted that its findings may not represent all hospitals because it only studied the highest-ranked, and some of those hospitals do not publicly report information on their board members. The study also did not examine “the community ties of board members to gauge local accountability of board decisions.”
The authors also noted that they did not examine the racial and gender makeup of boards, which they said merits further review — in 2018, 42 percent of U.S. hospital boards had all-white members and 70 percent of members were male.
Given the economic situation most hospitals face today, it was only a matter of time before we started to hear comments like we heard recently from a system CEO.
“We’ve got to pump the brakes on physician employment this year,” she said. “This arms race with Optum and PE firms has gotten out of control, and we’re looking at almost $300K per year of loss per employed doc.”
Of course, that system (like most) has been calling that loss a “subsidy” or an “investment” for the past several years, justified by the ability to pursue an integrated model of care and to grow the overall system book of business.
But with non-hospital competitors unfettered by the requirement to pay “fair market value” for physicians, the bidding war for doctors has become unsustainable for many hospitals. Around half of physicians are now employed by hospitals, with many more employed in other corporate settings.
There’s a growing sense that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of employment, and now the phrase “stopping the bleed”—commonplace in the post-PhyCor days of the early 2000s—has begun to ring out again.
One challenge: finding ways to talk openly about “pumping the brakes” with the board, given that most systems have key physician stakeholders as part of their governance structure. Twice in the last month we’ve had CEOs ask us about reconfiguring their boards so that there are fewer doctors involved in governance—a sharp about-face from the “integration” narrative of just a few years ago.
It’s a tricky balance to strike. We recently heard a fascinating statistic that we’re working to verify: a third of all hospital CEO turnover in the last year was driven by votes of no-confidence by the medical staff. True or not, there’s no doubt that running afoul of physicians can be a career-limiting move for hospital executives, so if we’re about to enter an era of dialing back physician employment strategies, it’ll be fascinating to see how the conversations unfold. We’ll continue to keep an eye on this shift in direction and would love to know what you’re hearing as well, and to discuss how we might be of assistance in navigating what are sure to be a series of difficult choices.
Payers, pharmacy benefit managers and drug manufacturers are no strangers to heavy criticism from the public and providers alike. Now another sector of the healthcare system has found itself increasingly caught in the crosshairs of constituents looking to point a finger for the rising cost of care: hospitals.
As sharp words against the industry bubble up more often and encompass a wider variety of issues, it marks an important turn in the ethos of American healthcare. Most policymakers have historically wanted hospitals on their side, and health systems are often the largest employer within their communities and in many states.
“In my career, I’ve never seen things more aligned to the detriment of hospitals than it is now,” Paul Keckley, PhD, said. Dr. Keckley is a widely known industry analyst and editor of The Keckley Report, a weekly newsletter discussing healthcare policy and current trends.
Confidence in the medical system as a whole fell from 51 percent in 2020 to a record low of 38 percent in 2022. Though the healthcare system is among all major U.S. institutions facing record-low public confidence, are hospitals ready for an era of widespread distrust?
“We’re going into hospital purgatory. It’s a period in which old rules may not work in the future,” Dr. Keckley said. “The only thing we know for sure is that it’s not going to get easier.”
State-versus-hospital fights have popped up throughout the U.S. over the past year. Most recently, in Colorado, a back and forth unfolded between Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s hospital association over who is ultimately responsible for high care costs. In a speech Jan. 17, the Democratic governor accused Colorado’s hospitals of overcharging patients and sitting on significant cash reserves.
“It’s time that we hold them accountable,” he said.
The Colorado Hospital Association says the data supporting those claims does not reflect the several ongoing industry challenges, among them labor shortages, regulatory burdens and inflationary pressures.
“Unfortunately, we continue to hear rhetoric against the hospitals and health systems that have worked diligently on healthcare quality, access and affordability,” CHA said in a statement to Becker’s. “Colorado’s hospitals and health systems have been working with the administration on many of these programs, including reinsurance, hospital discounted care, price transparency, out-of-network patient protections, and more.”
Some 1,500 miles eastward, another incident of hospital-community conflict grew. In January, Pennsylvania lawmakers promoted a nonpartisan report that accuses UPMC of building a monopoly in the state through consolidation over the last decade — the Pittsburgh-based system refuted the claims, saying they were based on “flawed data.”
To the south, North Carolina officials accused the state’s seven largest health systems in June of using pandemic aid to enrich themselves. Hospitals said the accusations were based on “cherry-picked data” spun in a way that does not reflect their ongoing challenges.
As state- and market-level fights against hospitals intensify and grab national attention, hospitals and health systems may find themselves less familiar in steadying public perception than their payer and pharmaceutical counterparts, who are no strangers to vocal opponents.
“With public opinion shifting a bit amid COVID, and with some anecdotal evidence that hospitals are doing some bad things, state policymakers feel that they are enjoying the political will to make these gestures,” Ge Bai, PhD, said. “It’s also a key issue for voters. Even if they don’t do anything in reality, the gesture will probably get political capital.”
Dr. Bai is a professor of accounting and health policy at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. She believes a key underlying factor driving hospital critiques as of late is the reduced public confidence in medicine by way of the pandemic.
“The hospital industry has moved away from its traditional charitable mission and toward a business orientation that is undeniable,” she said. “With the [pandemic] dust settling, I think a lot of people realize the clinicians are the heroes, but hospitals are maybe not as altruistic as they once thought.”
In 2021, over 70 percent of Americans said they trusted physicians and nurses, but only 22 percent said the same about hospital executives, according to a study from the University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“It’s a tough job and a complicated business to run, and everybody in the community has an opinion about it based on anecdotal evidence,” Dr. Keckley said. “I think much of the blame too for hospitals taking a lot of hits has been boards that are not prepared to govern.”
For both Drs. Keckley and Bai, there are other major issues they each point to as contributing factors to the growing wariness around hospital operations:
A lack of compliance with CMS price transparency rules. Some of the most recent studies estimate hospital compliance rates could range from 16 percent to 55 percent, while hospitals say the issue has been mischaracterized. CMS has penalized very few hospitals for noncompliance since the rule took effect in 2021.
The decades-long trend of consolidation hitting a tipping point. With consolidation, hospitals have long argued the trend would lead to more efficiency, care access, quality of care and lower costs. One of the most comprehensive consolidation studies to date was released Jan. 24 in JAMA and concluded that merged health systems have led to “marginally better care at significantly higher costs.”
“Hospitals are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do — make money to survive and expand,” Dr. Bai said. “Instead of blaming individual players, we have to raise the bar and think about who created the system in the first place that makes competition so difficult — the government.”
State retirement benefits plans struggling financially. Though not a new trend, unfunded healthcare benefits promised to retired public employees and their dependents continues to grow around the country, incentivizing state lawmakers to look in new directions to save on costs. Unfunded retiree healthcare liabilities across all states surpassed $1 trillion in 2019, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Competition from other healthcare sectors. Competition for patients has arrived from other healthcare sectors, especially from payers. In 2023, UnitedHealth Group’s Optum owns or is affiliated with the most physicians in the country at 60,000, though it’s likely higher after several large acquisitions last year.
“The center of gravity in healthcare has shifted from hospitals that muscled their way into scaling,” Dr. Keckley said. “The reality is that providing hospital services in non-hospital settings that are safe, effective and less costly is where the market, and insurers, are going.”
Despite the uptick in states and Americans that have gone into fault-finding mode against hospitals and those running them, operating a financially successful hospital or health system in 2023 is a monumental task, perhaps even close to impossible for many. Last year, approximately half of U.S. hospitals finished the year with a negative margin, making it “the worst financial year” for the industry since the start of the pandemic, according to Kaufman Hall’s latest “National Flash Hospital Report.”
“Hospitals aren’t going into this with a huge amount of goodwill at their backs, and I think that’s what they need to be prepared for,” Dr. Keckley said. “You can’t just go in and tell the story of ‘look at what we do for the community’ or ‘look at all the people we employ’ — that is not going to work anymore.”
Running a health system recently has proven to be a very hard job. Mounting losses in the face of higher operating expenses, softer than expected volumes, deferred capex, and strained C-suite succession planning are just a few of the immediate issues with which CEOs and boards must deal.
But frankly, none of those are the biggest strategic issue facing health systems. The biggest strategic issue is the reorganization of the American healthcare landscape into an ambulatory care business that emphasizes competing for covered lives at scale in lower cost and convenient settings of care. This shift in business model has significant ramifications, if you own and operate acute care hospitals.
Village MD and Optum are two of the organizations driving the business model shift. They are owned by large publicly traded companies (Walgreens and UnitedHealth Group, respectively). Both Optum and Village MD have had a string of announced major patient care acquisitions over the past few years, none of which is in the acute care space.
The future of American healthcare will likely be dominated by large well-organized and well-run multi-specialty physician groups with a very strong primary care component. These physician service companies will be payer agnostic and focused on value-based care, though will still be prepared to operate in markets where fee-for-service dominates. They will deliver highly coordinated care in lower cost settings than hospital outpatient departments. And these companies will be armed with tools and analytics that permit them to manage the care for populations of patients, in order to deliver both better health outcomes and lower costs.
At the same time this is happening, we are experiencing steady growth in Medicare Advantage. And along with it, a stream of primary care groups who operate purpose-built clinics to take full risk on Medicare Advantage populations. These companies include ChenMed, Cano Health and Oak Street, among others. These organizations use strong culture, training, and analytics to better manage care, significantly reduce utilization, and produce better health outcomes and lower costs.
Public and private equity capital are pouring into the non-acute care sectors, fueling this growth. As of the start of 2022, nearly three quarters of all physicians in the US were employed by either corporate entities (such as private equity, insurance companies, and pharmacy companies), or employed by health systems. And this employment trend has accelerated since the start of the pandemic. The corporate entities, rather than health systems, are driving this increasing trend. Corporate purchases of physician practices increased by 86% from 2019 to 2021.
What can health systems do? To succeed in the future, you must be the nexus of care for the covered lives in your community. But that does not mean the health system must own all the healthcare assets or employ all of the physicians. The health system can be the platform to convene these assets and services in the community. In some respects, it is similar to an Apple iPhone. They are the platform that convenes the apps. Some of those apps are developed and owned by Apple. But many more apps are developed by people outside of Apple, and the iPhone is simply the platform to provide access.
Creating this platform requires a change in mindset. And it requires capital. There are many opportunities for health systems to partner with outside capital providers, such as private equity, to position for the future – from both a capital and a mindset point of view.
The change in mindset, and the access to flexible capital, is necessary as the future becomes more and more about reorganizing into an ambulatory care business that emphasizes competing for covered lives at scale in lower cost and convenient settings of care.
Healthcare leaders now need to strike a delicate balance that requires managing financial and growth metrics, increasing the speed of transformation, and building the health systems of tomorrow. So how do we redefine compensation models to reward all these behaviors?
Executive compensation might not spring to mind as a key driver of healthcare transformation, nor does it seem naturally connected to critical issues such as health equity, patient safety, or quality of care – just a few of the areas where significant changes can be made to transform healthcare. But, in fact, executives leading not-for-profit health systems today are tasked with delivering measurable results that improve the health status of their patients and their communities. And to ensure that these new performance metrics are met, we must change how we think about —and deliver—compensation.
Defining a new model
While executive compensation has always been tied to specific objectives, they have historically leaned heavily toward financial performance, volume and margins, with a modest portion of compensation aligned to quality of care and patient outcomes. But transformative approaches such as population health, value-based care, patient wellness and health outcomes are shifting the mark.
Healthcare leaders now need to strike a delicate balance that requires managing financial and growth metrics, increasing the speed of transformation, and building the health systems of tomorrow. So how do we redefine compensation models to reward all these behaviors?
Some might say that the answer lies in adjusting incentive plans. While incentive plans across health care have not changed significantly in the past decade, the sophistication of the plans has changed, reflecting greater attention to delivering a better patient experience. But delivering better experiences does not imply that health systems have transformed from the top down. In my mind, adjusting incentive plans only solves part of the problem.
If we want true health care transformation—and we should, in order to best serve patients and communities—health systems need to re-evaluate the outcomes for each stakeholder and create incentives to evolve leadership as a whole. We need to rethink executive compensation models to align with value-based care, patient experience, and the resulting outcomes, along with traditional performance measurements.
Leading through lingering disruption
But rethinking executive compensation models won’t be an easy task, especially given the external challenges and changes thrust upon the health care system over the last few years.
As with nearly every other aspect of health care, pay for performance was disrupted during the pandemic. Demand for health services changed dramatically, labor and attrition issues intensified, and supply chain problems and operational costs increased. These new pressures required executives to manage through long periods of uncertainty where meeting operational pay-for-performance goals was nearly impossible. Fast-forward to today, the executive talent market remains extraordinarily competitive. Demand outpaces supply due to higher-than-typical retirements, effects of the great resignation, the need for new skill sets and overall burnout.
As a result, there has been upward pressure on compensation to address and fulfill unexpected but immediate needs such as rewarding executives for managing in a unique and challenging performance environment, increasing efforts to recruit and retain, and recognizing leaders for their hard-won accomplishments.
Considerations and changes
When considering adjusting models for 2023 and beyond, CEOs and compensation committees need to take these pressures and disruptions into account. They should look closely at their own compensation data from the past two years – not as a lighthouse for future compensation, but as data that may need to be set aside due to the volume of performance goals and achievements that were up-ended by the pandemic. When relying on external industry data, the same rules apply; smaller data sets or those that don’t account for the past two years may be misleading, so review carefully before using limited data sets to inform adjusted models.
Just as important, CEOs and compensation committees should consider new performance measurements tied to both financial and quality or value-based transformation metrics. We don’t need to eliminate traditional financial and operational goals because viability is still a business mandate. But how can we articulate compensation-driven KPIs for stewardship of patient and community health, improved outcomes and reduced cost of care? Too many measures are akin to having no measures at all.
The compensation mix should take into account a more focused approach to long-term measures. The old paradigm of 12-month incentive cycles is not enough to address the time required to truly transform health care. Another consideration should be performance-based funding of deferred compensation based on achieving transformation goals, and greater use of retention programs to support the maintenance of a stable executive team during the transformation period. Covid-19 proved how crisis can be an accelerator for change. True transformation should blend the skills gained from crisis management with planful, thoughtful and intentional change.
In addition, some metrics may need to incorporate a discretionary component, considering ongoing disruption within the workforce, supply chain limitations, and energy, equipment and labor cost increases. More organizations are also including health equity, DE&I, and ESG goals in incentive programs to tighten alignment with mission-critical board-mandated goals.
There are four elements that are vital in the journey to transform health care from “heads in beds” to the public-service-oriented organizations that they were meant to be—and can be again. With mounting pressure from patients, communities, and payers to boards and employees, CEOs and compensation committees must become key drivers of change, setting the right goals and incentives from the top down.
Affordability: can patients afford the care they need?
Quality: is the care being delivered of the utmost quality?
Usability: how can we reduce hurdles to undertaking the care plan?
Access: are all community members able to access needed care?
Solving for each of these elements is one of the biggest challenges we face, and as we begin to emerge from the disruption of the pandemic, leaders will be watched closely to ensure that they deliver—and can clearly show the path to delivery.
Ideally, end achievements would include patients spending less to achieve better health; payers controlling costs and reducing risk; providers realizing efficiencies and greater patient satisfaction; and alignment of medical supplier pricing to patient outcomes. And when you zoom out to reveal the bigger picture, all of these pieces come together to achieve healthier populations and lower overall health care costs, while still meeting the financial goals of the organization.
We’re asking a lot of already-overburdened health care executives. Stakeholders must prove that we value leaders with the right mindset and skillset in order to attract executives who can shepherd organizations through the transformation journey. This requires a setting where there is supportive leadership, a compelling mission and opportunity for personal growth and development. It will not be easy, but without rethinking how we design compensation models from the top down, it will be unnecessarily challenging.
The board of trustees at Cleveland-based MetroHealth System has fired President and CEO Akram Boutros, MD.
Dr. Boutros was fired Nov. 21 after the board received findings of a probe into compensation issues involving more than $1.9 million in supplemental bonuses, Vanessa Whiting, chair of the board, said in a statement posted on the health system’s website. The probe found that between 2018 and 2022, Dr. Boutros authorized the compensation for himself, without disclosure to the board.
“We have taken these actions mindfully and deliberately but with sadness and disappointment,” Ms. Whiting said. “We all recognize the wonderful things Dr. Boutros has done for our hospital and for the community. However, we know of no organization permitting its CEO to self-evaluate and determine their entitlement to an additional bonus and at what amount, as Dr. Boutros has done.”
Dr. Boutros took the helm of MetroHealth in 2013. Last year, Dr. Boutros announced his plans to retire at the end of 2022. In September, MetroHealth named Airica Steed, EdD, RN, its next president and CEO. Dr. Steed, who is executive vice president and system COO of Sinai Chicago Health System, will take the helm of MetroHealth Dec. 5, according to Ms. Whiting’s statement. Meanwhile, Nabil Chehade, MD, executive vice president and chief clinical transformation officer at MetroHealth, will assume the CEO’s duties on an interim basis.
Ms. Whiting said MetroHealth discovered the compensation issues related to Dr. Boutros while preparing for the CEO transition, and an internal investigation took place, led by the Tucker Ellis law firm.
She said Dr. Boutros admitted to conducting self-assessments of his performance under specific metrics he established and authorizing payment to himself of more than $1.9 million in supplemental bonuses between 2018 and 2022.
According to Ms. Whiting, Dr. Boutros repaid more than $2.1 million in October, representing the supplemental bonus money paid without board approval for performance in calendar years 2017 through 2021, plus more than $124,000 in interest.
She said the board has also implemented immediate CEO spending and hiring limitations through Dec. 31, 2022, and Dr. Boutros has self-reported to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
MetroHealth’s internal investigation is ongoing.
Among Dr. Boutros’ accomplishments at MetroHealth were helping annual revenue increase from $785 million to more than $1.5 billion; growing the health system’s workforce from 6,200 to nearly 8,000 while seeing employee minimum wage increase to $15 per hour; and developing Ohio’s only Ebola treatment center.
In just the first half of this year, more than 60 hospital CEOs have retired or left their roles, according to search firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Retirements are up 48 percent from the same time last year. Part of this is generational, as many Baby Boomer leaders are at retirement age, but the latest wave comes after many delayed planned exits during the pandemic to guide their organizations through the crisis. 2
Now, after two-plus grueling years of leading through COVID, executives are ready to pass the baton. The latest high-profile announcement came this week, with Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare’s CEO Marc Harrison announcing his plans to leave the system for a role at venture firm General Catalyst.
The Gist: As a recent piece from Modern Healthcare points out, many systems have known their CEOs were exiting well in advance, but the significant cultural and financial consequences associated with choosing a new leader, especially during a period of industry-wide change, are presenting boards with hiring decisions as difficult as they are important.
Astute organizations have been planning ahead for these transitions, developing a bench of next-generation leaders, and providing them exposure to the board. COVID also served as a helpful stress test to identify talent who rose to the occasion to lead confidently and calmly through the crisis, while simultaneously weeding others out who floundered under uncertainty.
The next generation of leaders will need different skills to navigate current and future challenges, including rethinking the role of the health system in response to a new class of disruptors, and managing through a workforce crisis that will require evolving the labor model while meeting new demands for workforce diversity and engagement.