The Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Worcester, Massachusetts

UMass Memorial crisis has several deep roots 

Sunday, October 7, 2001

By Robert Z. Nemeth
Special to the Telegram & Gazette

A recent Sunday Telegram report on the earnings of financially strapped UMass Memorial Health Care's top executives was an eyeopener. 
     While services are discontinued and hundreds of employees are being laid off because of a budget crisis, the CEO of the nonprofit hospital makes more than $850,000 in salary and benefits, and the recently retired president earned more than $730,000. Even Senior Vice President Michael J. Green, tainted by scandal because he had falsified his academic credentials, pulls down more than $450,000.
     UMass Memorial is the product of a merger between the former Memorial Health Care Inc. and the clinical division of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The Telegram & Gazette promoted this partnership vigorously, both in print and by persuasion of public officials, because we believed it was good for the community. An editorial titled “The merger all want” (May 5, 1997) stated: “This merger is essential because neither entity can continue to prosper, or even survive, in today's increasingly competitive health care market without a partner.”
     This is what I wrote in a column, “UMass Memorial merger is vital to employees, region” which appeared in this space on April 13, 1997: “These two leading institutions, along with their affiliates throughout Central Massachusetts, would form a unified health care powerhouse. This partnership, reinforced by a jointly established research center, would ensure Worcester's status as a health care hub, provide long-term job security for thousands of employees and economic progress for the region.”
     Sadly, all that turned out to be wishful thinking. UMass Memorial has accumulated losses in excess of $50 million, important services are being eliminated and as many as 1,000 employees may lose their jobs. A Florida-based consulting firm was hired to help with the recovery. Its recommendations have not been made public.
     Much of the financial crisis is the result of inadequate and unfair government reimbursements for the cost of health care provided by hospitals. Consolidating overlapping functions after the merger was a formidable challenge for leaders of the new entity who carefully divided the top positions among themselves. But the problems of UMass Memorial have deeper roots. They also grew from poor management, turf wars, costly duplication and lack of strict oversight by trustees who blindly supported every move management made. In a futile effort to compete with world-class medical giants in Boston, UMass Memorial has over-extended itself. Now its employees -- but evidently not the top executives -- are paying the price. 
     A series of easily avoidable scandals took a heavy toll as well. Discord among the merger partners, evident from the outset, worsened with time. The costly and woefully mishandled ouster of Dr. William E. Meyers, the chief of surgery -- a clash largely driven by huge egos and personal animosity -- was an ugly affair that left lasting scars. The Green issue raised inescapable questions about management's competence and sensitivity to ethics.
     When it was revealed that Mr. Green misstated his academic credentials, he was kept on, even though the clinical system is tied to an academic institution in a partnership that demands integrity. A subsequent “national search” reportedly failed to produce any candidate capable matching Mr. Green's skills. As it turned out, even Mr. Green's supposedly unique skills could not prevent UMass Memorial from drowning in red ink. At the same time, for-profit Worcester Medical Center is evidently doing OK.
     It gives me no pleasure to make these comments because, at one time, I was one of the believers and devoted much time and energy to promoting the cause. Ironically, UMass Memorial higher-ups who eagerly sought publicity in the early days now choose to blame the press for their problems.
     While I regret some of those enthusiastic words I lavished on the merger in 1997, I still believe a viable UMass Memorial is in the community's best interest. But there is this nagging question: Do current management and trustees have what it takes to turn around this troubled institution?
     Dr. Franklin M. Loew was one of the learned experts who testified before the City Council's Health Committee on an order by the Board of Health to adjust the level of fluoride in Worcester's water supply. He did so to balance the torrent of misinformation, distortion and scare mongering offered by opponents. (Among other outlandish claims, Deborah E. Moore charged that doctors and dentists risk losing their professional licenses if they spoke out against fluoridation.)
     Here is what Dr. Loew had to say:
     “I speak as a lifelong health educator in both veterinary and human medicine at places such as John Hopkins, Tufts and Cornell universities, as president now of Worcester's own little Becker College, and as a resident of the city. I find it dismaying that we are even debating this issue.
     “Fluoridation of drinking water is a proven public health practice, in the same league as polio vaccination, vitamins A and D additions to milk and chlorination of drinking water. Science is a process, not an occasional finding that critics can wave. The medical, dental and scientific evidence showing the health benefits of fluoride is clear. There is no controversy among knowledgeable scientists, dentists and doctors.
     “Is the Earth flat? There are still some people who think so. Is fluoridation a communist plot? There are apparently some who think so. Is fluoridation unsafe? There are obviously some who think so. But fluoridation is safe and it is in the interest of enlightened public health.”
     Well said. Councilors Dennis L. Irish and Juan Gomez voted in favor of fluoridation. I wasn't surprised by Councilor Michael Perotto's “no” vote. We're in the midst of an election season when some politicians cut a very small profile in courage. 

Robert Z. Nemeth's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.

©2001 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.