The Exceptional Greed of Health Care Executives

The sickening greed perpetrated by U.S. health care executives contributes to an alarming rise in serious errors in understaffed pharmacies.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to weep uncontrollably, laugh hysterically or just throw up. I recently did all three when I came across yet another outbreak of sickening greed pouring out of America’s corporate executive suites during today’s raging health crisis. What made this one especially nauseating was that the perpetrators are corporate honchos and major health care executives!

Leading this greed brigade is Larry Merlo, CEO of our country’s largest drugstore chain, CVS. While much of our economy has been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, this billion-dollar giant has customers surging in to get everything from medications to masks. Yet, in this time of great need, the boss and the board of CVS have blithely presided over scenes of chaos in many of their stores, which have been so severely understaffed that they pose a danger to public health.

The chain’s pharmacists tell of frantically scrambling to keep up with filling prescriptions, answering ever-ringing phone inquiries, giving shots and COVID tests, stocking toilet paper, tending the drive-through, etc. — while also having to meet ceaseless corporate demands for cost cutting and more profit. The result has been a dangerous work overload, with many pharmacists handling nearly 200 prescriptions in a nonstop, six-hour shift, about one every two minutes. Unsurprisingly, there’s been an alarming rise in serious errors and weeklong delays in providing critical medications for customers. The New York Times reports that one CVS pharmacist has no control over staffing, and even the chain’s district leader has no power to make changes.

So, not only does the buck stop at the top but so does a big chunk of the corporate bucks. While CEO Merlo has failed to fund the staff his pharmacies and the public clearly need, he has generously funded his own needs … and then some. He paid himself $36.5 million last year alone. Then there is the mountain of interest payments and fees that CVS is paying to Wall Street bankers and lawyers who engineered Merlo’s monopolistic deal to take over the Aetna health insurance giant last year.

So, while you’re being underserved at a local CVS, just remember that Boss Man Merlo and his merger mercenaries are making a killing. How comforting is that?

The holy mantra of health professionals was coined about 2,500 years ago by the Greek physician Hippocrates: “Do no harm.”

Of course, that was before corporate health care took charge and a new paramount ethic was engraved on America’s big chain hospitals: “Jack up profits.” To see it in action, check out the COVID money grab and executive greed being exhibited by the largest and richest hospital baronies. A New York Times analysis of the finances of 60 highly profitable, deep-pocketed giants — such as HCA, Tenet, and Providence — revealed that they had rushed to the front of the pandemic bailout line this spring to pull $15 billion from the government’s emergency fund. They pocketed the taxpayers’ money despite sitting on tens of billions of dollars of their own cash reserves.

But hold your nose, for it gets much stinkier. These bailout allotments were supposed to keep hospital workers on the job, yet the wealthiest chains promptly hit nurses, janitors and other crucial frontline staffers with layoffs, pay cuts and deadly shortages of protective gear. For example, HCA, the behemoth worth $36 billion, snatched a billion-dollar taxpayer bailout for itself and then demanded that its nurses and low-paid staffers accept wage freezes, elimination of company pension payments and other cuts … or it would eliminate thousands of jobs.

But wait: HCA’s chief exec, Samuel Hazen, suddenly showed solidarity with lowly workers by donating $237,000 (two months of his reported $1.4 million salary) to a worker support fund. How magnanimous! But wait again. Hazen’s generosity is a deception, not a sacrifice. The trick is that a CEO’s “salary” is a miniscule part of total pay. His annual bonus, stock payouts and other compensation raise his actual yearly haul to $26 million! So his donation is less than 1% of his pay, and he almost certainly will write that off his income taxes. So we taxpayers (including the nurses and others he’s knocking down) not only underwrite his fat take-home but also subsidize his face-saving philanthropic gimmick.

Meanwhile, having endangered and infuriated HCA’s workforce, Hazen has launched “a new line of business”: an HCA subsidiary to hire and train hospital strikebreakers. To entice scabs, he offers a $150 “Show Up” bonus and — get this — a continental breakfast!

What we have here is a raging virus of executive-suite greed doing deeper damage to our society than COVID-19 ever could.

Jim Hightower