Immune to Cuts: Lofty Salaries at Hospitals

March 15, 2011 |

By Jim Dwyer

At Bronx-Lebanon, a hospital that exists only by the grace and taxed fortunes of the people of New York State, the chief executive was paid $4.8 million in 2007 and $3.6 million in 2008, records show. At NewYork-Presbyterian, a hospital system that receives nearly half a billion dollars annually in public money, the chief executive was paid $9.8 million in 2007 and $2.8 million in 2008.

In an urgent search to cut the state’s health care costs and lift revenue, a task force came up with a plan to increase the cost of a hospital stay by $5 and to limit housekeeping services for the disabled in their homes.

One area of plump costs, however, remained undisturbed: executive suites where salaries and compensation run into the millions of dollars, even at the most financially struggling hospitals.

A proposal to allow public financing for only the first $1 million in wages for an executive died before it even reached the task force. “It was classic how it was killed,” said Judy Wessler, director of the Commission on the Public’s Health System, an advocacy group that had suggested the limits.

“We submitted the proposal in writing, met with the state staff members about it, then testified for our two minutes at a hearing,” Ms. Wessler said. “Then in the written summary of all the 4,000 proposals, they twisted the wording of ours so that it would be impossible to implement. Then they said it was not viable, so it wasn’t even put up for a vote.”

State officials acknowledged that the proposal had been drastically changed from its original meaning, but did not explain how that happened. In an e-mail exchange provided by Ms. Wessler, Jason A. Helgerson, the state’s Medicaid director, apologized “for not having had the time to do all we wish to do.” Mr. Helgerson was not available for an interview on Tuesday, a spokeswoman said.

The subject of executive wages would have been familiar to the task force, many of whose members came from the health care industry. One had worked as a consultant for Mount Sinai Medical Center, which received $250 million in Medicaid and paid its chief executive $2.7 million in 2008. A co-chairman of the task force, Michael Dowling, was paid $2.4 million in 2008 by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, which received about $220 million from Medicaid.

UNDER current policies, the State Health Department monitors executive salaries, though much of the compensation data the hospitals provide to the state do not jibe with the tax forms that they must file. In any event, the state does not regulate the salaries, viewing them as decisions that are entirely up to the hospitals’ boards.

“Basically, the state does not set compensation rates for private businesses, even if taxpayer funding is a major revenue stream,” said Claudia Hutton, a spokeswoman for the Health Department. “We don’t have any authority to set compensation levels or even to advise.”

New legislation proposes to give that authority to the state.

Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, a Democrat from Manhattan, is sponsoring a bill that would limit executive salaries at publicly financed hospitals to $250,000. She suggested it would be in keeping with some other recent initiatives of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“The governor is fond of caps,” Ms. Glick said. “He has suggested a cap on the salary of educational superintendents at $175,000. There are caps on pain and suffering for those who have been the victims of medical malpractice.”

Ms. Glick’s district includes Greenwich Village, where St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattanclosed last year in a blizzard of problems. “I had a hospital that existed for 160 years, and there were many issues with it,” she said. “It also had some level of poor management in its final year.”

The top 10 executives took home about $6 million that year. They may have gone out of business, but they didn’t go cheap.

Nicholas Confessore and Jo Craven McGinty contributed reporting. E-mail