Nurses deploy “fat cat” to plug hospital transparency plan

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 29, 2014…. With beach towels as props and a brown “fat cat” mascot wearing a top hat and monocle on hand for effect, nurses and other advocates in favor of a ballot initiative requiring greater hospital financial transparency said they won’t be deterred if the Legislature declines to act first on their petition.

“We’re always hopeful, but if we can’t settle this here we’ll let the people of the Commonwealth settle it,” said Karen Higgins, a staff nurse at Boston Medical Center and past president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association staged an event at the State House on Tuesday as House lawmakers debated the fiscal 2015 budget, urging lawmakers to pass the Hospital Profit Transparency and Fairness Act. The bill (H 3844) would require hospitals to report all investments and executive pay, and would regulate hospital profits and executive compensation with civil penalties for exceeding limits.

As executive compensation rises and staff and services are being cut at hospitals like North Adams Regional Medical Center and Health Alliance Hospital in Fitchburg, advocates presented a list of more than 40 Bay State hospitals they said had “unreported millions” stashed in off-shore accounts in places like the Cayman Islands.

“I am deeply troubled to learn that some Massachusetts hospitals are storing funds offshore in the Cayman Islands and not disclosing it. Before we provide these hospitals with public money for reimbursements we should be demanding greater transparency and accountability,” said Rep. Josh Cutler, a Duxbury Democrat and one of several lawmakers to join the event. Reps. Denise Andrews and Jay Kaufman also attended to support the petition.

The Massachusetts Hospital Association responded to the criticisms by explaining that some hospitals establish off-shore accounts in the Cayman Islands or Bermuda for the purpose of “cost effective management of hospital liability insurance costs” that produce savings used to better deliver care.

The MHA said off-shore holdings are legal and transparent, with transactions routinely reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

“Today’s publicity stunt by a union that represents only an estimated 20 percent of the registered nurses in this state is inaccurate, misleading, and counterproductive to the vital, lifesaving work that hospitals perform every day,” the statement from the hospital group said.

While the Legislature has through the end of June to act on initiative petitions to head off a ballot fight in November, advocates who have initially qualified their questions for the ballot can begin requesting petitions on May 7 to gather the roughly 11,000 additional signatures needed to put their issue before the voters.

Higgins said the coalition behind the hospital transparency initiative is already gearing up for the second signature gathering drive, and has planned a May 21 rally at the State House with more than 1,000 nurses expected to attend to kick-off the next phase of their campaign.

“People are sick and tired of hearing how some big corporation has some complicated scheme to avoid accountability,” said Nathan Proctor, state director of Massachusetts Fair Share.

The initiative petition, and accompanying bill, requires hospitals receiving taxpayer subsidies to disclose their profit margins, how much money they hold in off-shore accounts and how much compensation they pay their CEOs.

The petition also provides for enhanced funding for hospitals that serve poorer populations. Hospitals with a patient mix that is less than 60 percent government payer would be required to keep their profit margin under 8 percent or face a civil penalty, and CEO pay would be capped at 100 times the salary of the lowest paid full-time hospital employee.

After the press conference, the cat mascot walked around the State House handing out beach towels to lawmakers depicting tax dollars being funneled into the “Grand Cayman Bank” with the message: “Support the Hospital Profit Transparency and Fairness Act.”

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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