Health care CEOs made $2.6 billion in 2018

Illustration of George Washington with a stethoscope around his neck.

The CEOs of 177 health care companies collectively made $2.6 billion in 2018 — roughly $700 million more than what the National Institutes of Health spent researching Alzheimer’s disease last year, according to a new Axios analysis of financial filings.

Why it matters: The pay packages reveal the health care system’s real incentives: finding ways to boost revenue and stock value by raising prices, filling more hospital beds, and selling more drugs and devices, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.

By the numbers: The median pay of a health care CEO in 2018 was $7.7 million. Fourteen CEOs made more than $46 million each.

  • The figures were calculated by using actual realized gains of stock options and awards, which are in the annual proxy disclosures companies file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The highest-paid health care CEO last year was Regeneron Pharmaceuticals CEO Leonard Schleifer, who made $118 million. A spokesperson said Schleifer “has built Regeneron from a start-up into a leading innovative biopharmaceutical company” and that he “generally holds his option awards until nearly the end of the full 10-year option term.”

  • Pharmaceutical CEOs represented 11 of the 25 highest compensation amounts last year.
  • Executives of medical device and equipment companies that don’t attract as much attention — such as Intuitive Surgical, Masimo, Hill-Rom and Exact Sciences — also were sitting at the top.

Between the lines: A vast majority of CEO pay comes from exercised and vested shares of stock. Salaries are almost an afterthought.

  • But health care executives routinely earned millions of dollars in cash bonuses, based on factors like revenue goals and financial metrics that experts say can be manipulated.
  • Quality of care is either not a factor at all in CEOs’ bonuses at all, or a marginal one.

Details: McKesson CEO John Hammergren received a $4 million bonus for hitting financial targets last year, just as the company was facing a slew of lawsuits over its role in the opioid crisis. McKesson did not immediately respond to questions.

  • Community Health Systems CEO Wayne Smith recorded a $3.3 million bonus even though his hospital chain continued to hemorrhage money. His bonus was heavily weighted by an adjusted metric that made CHS look profitable, and none of his bonus was tied to patient outcomes. CHS did not respond.

Worth noting: The analysis does not include compensation from not-for-profit hospital systems, because their 2018 tax filings have not been released yet.




Debt Sickened a Hospital Giant. Now the Doctors Are Revolting


The standoff over Lutheran shows how for-profit chain CHS, once the nation’s largest, allowed its facilities to decay, compromising care and destroying investor value.

Four doctors from Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., showed up at parent company Community Health Systems Inc. in May with a message for Chief Executive Officer Wayne Smith and his board. Physicians were in widespread revolt, they said. Facilities were cash-strapped and crumbling. Powerful locals wanted CHS to reinvest or leave.

The doctors urged Smith to sell the eight-hospital Lutheran Health Network to their physician group, which already owned a 20 percent stake, and an investor partner, for $2.4 billion—triple CHS’s current market value. The combative 71-year-old CEO denied authorizing cost cuts in Fort Wayne and demanded the names of those who did, say people in the meeting. The board refused the offer, and rather than pursue the budget-cutters, Smith fired Lutheran’s CEO, who’d sided with the doctors.

The standoff over Lutheran provides a window into how CHS, once the largest for-profit hospital chain in the U.S., has allowed facilities to languish, possibly compromising care and destroying investor value in the process. Smith presided over a decade-long acquisition binge that saddled CHS with total debt of almost eight times its earnings and a network of underperforming facilities. The company lost $2 billion in the past six quarters, during which doctors from Key West to Spokane have accused the chain of pinching pennies and regulators have fined it for overcharging Medicare. Says Indiana Republican Representative Jim Banks, who’s sided with the Fort Wayne doctors: “It’s buy, squeeze, and repeat.”

“At some point you reach a dead end, and you can’t cut the expenses anymore”

Smith took CHS public in 2001, just four years after coming to the company from Humana Inc., where he’d been head of hospital operations. The big acquisitions began in 2007, when the chain bought Texas-based Triad Hospitals Inc. for $6.4 billion, more than quadrupling its debt. Smaller deals followed. By the end of 2014, CHS had nearly doubled its debt again to finance its buyout of Health Management Associates LLC (HMA), a Florida-based group of mostly rural facilities that required costly upgrades.

Smith’s plan was to try to increase doctor productivity and slash costs, often replacing experienced doctors with loyal patients for younger ones who were willing to work longer hours. Like most for-profit operators, “they focused on cost control,” says Joshua Nemzoff of Nemzoff & Co., who advises hospitals on sale transactions. “At some point you reach a dead end, and you can’t cut the expenses anymore.”

Along with the rest of the hospital industry, CHS expected the Affordable Care Act to provide a windfall of insurance money from the newly covered. Investor enthusiasm soured when 19 states—including Florida and Texas, two key CHS markets—declined to expand Medicaid eligibility, leaving many low-income people without coverage. At the same time, insurers and other government programs began working to divert patients from hospitals into doctors’ offices, outpatient clinics, and other less expensive venues. The combined effect was particularly hard on rural hospitals, a large share of CHS’s network.

Raising prices while slashing costs has been a hallmark of CHS under Smith. In Fort Wayne, Lutheran charges more than rival Parkview Medical Center Inc. for 8 of 10 common medical procedures. During the first half of this year, patients were placed in beds in Lutheran’s emergency room hallways because the wards they should have been moved to were understaffed, and a leaking air conditioner in the neonatal care unit was dripping water on infants’ beds, according to people familiar with the conditions. While Parkview invested in its cancer and cardiac units, Lutheran doctors said at the board meeting that the CHS hospital was using lower-priced monitors they feared would miss potentially fatal heart rhythms.

Company spokeswoman Tomi Galin said in an email that many other hospitals use the same monitors. Nevertheless, CHS plans to spend $500 million on improvements and will recruit new doctors at Lutheran, she wrote, adding that employee retention there is rising.

Other critics of Smith have taken their complaints to court. After Gregg Becker quit his job as chief financial officer of CHS’s Rockwood Clinic in Spokane, Wash., in 2012, he filed a whistleblower claim with the U.S. Department of Labor, saying his superiors told him to reduce the facility’s forecast loss from $12.8 million to $4 million and threatened to fire him if he didn’t. Becker was awarded a settlement of almost $1.9 million by an administrative law judge, according to court documents. CHS has appealed the case to the Washington Supreme Court and the federal Arbitration and Review Board. (CHS sold Rockwood earlier this year.)

In 2014, CHS agreed to pay $98.15 million to the Department of Justice to settle lawsuits in five different districts accusing the company of charging for higher-cost inpatient services at hospitals, including Lutheran, when less expensive outpatient services would have been sufficient. CHS didn’t admit wrongdoing. But the DOJ in a statement said the company had “engaged in a deliberate corporate-driven scheme to increase inpatient admissions of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Department of Defense’s Tricare program.”

With losses mounting and the stock down more than 80 percent from its peak in June 2015, Smith has resorted to selling hospitals to pay off debt. One result: CHS will soon be about the same size it was before it attempted to digest HMA. Hedge fund ASL Strategic Value, a CHS shareholder, sent a letter to the board on Aug. 8 asking directors to replace Smith. Tom Kelley, a Fort Wayne car dealer whose employees rely on Lutheran for care, quit the Lutheran board in July and says he’s reviewing his employee medical plan. He tried and failed to broker a peace deal between the doctors and Smith.

“He’s a street fighter,” Kelley says of Smith. “He has survived government actions against him. He has survived lawsuits. He has survived all of this by being a tough SOB.”

BOTTOM LINE – Community Health Systems used acquisitions to become a major for-profit hospital operator. But the added heft wasn’t matched by profitability gains.


The collapse of Community Health Systems

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Just three years ago, Community Health Systems was the largest for-profit operator of hospitals with more than 200 facilities scattered in rural and suburban areas with growing populations. Now, the company is hemorrhaging money, sitting atop a mountain of debt and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy — all major reasons why CHS has lost almost 90% of its market value.

“I think the company has a nontrivial chance of defaulting,” said one CHS investor who asked to be unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue. Tomi Galin, a CHS spokeswoman, did not make any company officials available for an interview, but said the company is confident it will have “a stronger core group of hospitals that are better positioned for long-term growth.”

Why it matters: CHS sits in a massive hole after a string of missteps, according to industry insiders. And it’s not likely to get better for CHS, or the local communities that rely on a CHS facility, as more people get treated in lower-cost outpatient centers instead of the hospital.

The collapse: It began in 2013 and continued into January 2014. That’s when CHS completed its acquisition of Health Management Associates, a for-profit hospital chain that had a slew of financial and legal problems. The deal was worth $7.6 billion, including debt, and made CHS the largest for-profit hospital company by number of facilities.

“That was the death knell,” a health care investment banker said. “HMA was a troubled company, and (CHS) thought bigger would be better.”

Here’s what has happened at CHS since then:

  • A market cap that crumbled from roughly $7.5 billion in 2015 to less than $800 million today.
  • Net losses of almost $1.9 billion from the start of 2016 through the second quarter of this year.
  • A ballooning debt load totaling $14.7 billion as of June 30.
  • Larry Robbins, a prominent hedge fund manager, dumped his entire portfolio of CHS stock. Paul Singer of Elliott Management did the same earlier this year.
  • A fire sale of 30 hospitals to get cash to pay down debt.
  • Some of those sold hospitals were HMA remnants, while others were considered CHS’ better, more profitable hospitals. “It’s almost like they’re burning the furniture,” the banker said. An investor said CHS was “selling off the fine china” to meet debt payments.
  • A completed spin-off of Quorum Health that, in essence, threw many struggling rural hospitals off CHS’ books. Quorum isn’t faring well either.
  • High amounts of uncompensated care. CHS owns many hospitals in the South, and most of those states did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That means CHS has absorbed more uncompensated care than hospitals in Medicaid expansion states.

Looking ahead: CHS plans on divesting even more hospitals, executives said during their latest earnings call. They likely will be profitable hospitals, as buyers won’t touch money-losing inpatient facilities with dwindling admissions.

But large debt payments are due in 2019 through 2022. Short-term cash from transactions appears to be a bandage, and a subsequently smaller profit base won’t solve the big debt picture, making bankruptcy a real possibility, an investor said.

Galin, the CHS spokeswoman, said the money from the hospital sales “are being used to reduce our debt” and that “cash flow generation remains strong.”

Leadership questions: Many CHS executives have retired or left in the past two years, including longtime CFO Larry Cash. Wayne Smith, the CEO of the hospital chain since 1997, remains in his position. Smith is one of the highest earners among hospital executives and reaped more than $1 million in bonuses alone the past two years even though CHS’ stock price tanked.

Numerous sources would not go on the record to talk about CHS. One hospital industry analyst said this when asked how Smith still had his job despite the company’s problems: “Your question is very valid.”

Healthcare CEO pay climbs steadily since ACA passage

Dive Brief:

  • Earnings of healthcare CEOs have continued to grow under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the pay packages give them little incentive to rein in spending, a new Axios analysis concludes.
  • Since the ACA was passed in 2010, CEOs of the 70 largest healthcare companies have cumulatively earned a whopping $9.8 billion — or almost 11% more money on average each year. However, because most of the pay is in vested stock, CEOs often base decisionmaking on what boosts stock prices (e.g., bigger sales, more tests and procedures) and not the ACA goals of patient-centered, value-based care.
  • The analysis was based on financial reports from 70 publicly traded U.S. healthcare companies comprising more than $2 trillion in annual revenues. Not-for-profit hospital CEOs were not included.

Dive Insight:

The biggest payout — $863 million — went to John Martin, CEO of biotechnology company Gilead Sciences, according to the analysis. Other takeaways include:

  • Just four of the 113 healthcare CEOs in the analysis were women
  • 11 of the top 20 top earners were CEOs of pharma and drug-related companies;
  • CEOs earned a little less as a whole last year versus 2015 due to market uncertainty over the presidential election.

Rising salaries are drawing increased scrutiny and some pushback. In April, North Carolina lawmakers approved a bill that would bar compensation for CEOs of behavioral health managed care organizations from exceeding by more than 30% the average salary of other behavioral health managed care businesses in the state. The bill seemed targeted at Cardinal Healthcare Innovations CEO Richard Topping, whose salary was $435,000 more than the average salary for a managed care organization in the state.

Salaries of executives at nonprofit organizations have also been growing. According to a Wall Street Journal report in March, many nonprofits are embracing salary strategies used in the for-profit world and offering packages totaling more than $1 million, with possibility of bonuses and deferred payments. In 2014, about 75% of nonprofit pay packages totaling $1 million or more went to healthcare executives.

In Massachusetts, in fact, pay for hospital CEOs outpaced state health spending. The largest compensation package went to Elizabeth Nabel, president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who received $5.4 million in 2014, up 119% from the previous year. By contrast, overall healthcare spending in Massachusetts rose 4.8% that year.

In an analysis earlier this year, Axios found that Sutter Health CEO Patrick Fry gets paid the most per patient stay ($6.88 a day) among the 20 largest hospital systems. Greenwich Hospital CEO Norman Roth earned the most ($56.40 a day) among other studied hospitals.


Tenet Healthcare to pay $513 million over referral, kickback scheme, DOJ says

Hilton Head Hospital (Photo via Google)

Payout settles allegations of illegal kickbacks paid to clinic owners in exchange for referring patients for labor and delivery to Tenet hospitals.

How a bite from a stray dog shows the sick state of U.S. healthcare

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Jan Kern was bitten by a stray dog while traveling abroad and ended up with a jaw-dropping illustration of why the U.S. healthcare industry is completely sick.

That’s because she underwent a series of rabies shots in three countries at four medical facilities. What that revealed, and which will surprise no one, is that Americans pay way more for the exact same treatment than people in other nations.

Moreover, her experience highlights the lack of uniformity for drug prices, including commonly used medications. One facility might charge a few bucks for the same drug that costs thousands of dollars at a U.S. hospital.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to our medical system,” said Rick Kern, 61, who contacted me about his 62-year-old wife’s global healthcare adventure after reading my recent column on drug prices.

What’s great about his story as well is that, after I shared it with about a dozen healthcare experts, the consistent reaction was one of utter disbelief. We’re accustomed to shaking our heads at U.S. healthcare costs. Things become significantly more absurd when a couple of overseas medical facilities are stirred into the mix.

“It’s obvious that our system is unlike any other health system,” said Uwe Reinhardt, a healthcare economist at Princeton University. “Other systems were set up to care for patients. Ours was set up by the providers — the hospitals and drug companies — for their own benefit.”

Tenet Healthcare agrees to plead guilty in Atlanta kickback scheme, will pay $514 million

Atlanta Medical Center, previously one of Tenet Healthcare’s Georgia hospitals, was involved in the scheme.

Tenet Healthcare Corp. (NYSE: THC) said Monday that it believes it has reached an agreement in principle with the government to resolve a long-running criminal investigation and civil litigation about a kick-back scandal involving an Atlanta medical clinic and three of the company’s Atlanta-area hospitals.

Dallas-based Tenet said it has agreed to pay $514 million, has agreed to the appointment by the U.S. Department of Justice of a corporate monitor for a period of three years, and has agreed for two wholly owned subsidiaries that previously operated Atlanta Medical Center and North Fulton Hospital to each plead guilty to a single-count indictment. The settlement will be with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Northern and Middle Districts of Georgia, and the Georgia Attorney General’s Office.

“The agreement in principle contemplates, among other things, payment by the company of $513,788,345, which is comprised of a civil monetary payment of $368,000,000 and a criminal monetary payment of $145,788,345,” Tenet reported Monday.

The company’s two subsidiaries will plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to violate the federal anti-kickback statute and defraud the United States, Tenet reported.

Hospital Chain’s CEO Faces Lawsuit Over Business Practices

Prem Reddy, head of Prime Healthcare, is known for his aggressive turnaround strategies.

California Northstate University is the first for-profit traditional medical school accredited in the U.S.

Medical students Jonathan Huang, left, Zain Lalani, and Tyler Ellis observe a demonstration on performing an orthopedic exam at California Northstate University College of Medicine in Elk Grove last month. These first-year medical students are attending the first for-profit medical school in the nation.