As Cook County grapples with how to close a half-billion-dollar budget deficit next year, top bosses at the county’s health and hospitals system have doled out pay raises to a smattering of top administrators, the largest a $40,000 pay bump.
For months, several county commissioners have drilled health system Chief Financial Officer Michael Ayers and CEO William Foley about the six-figure salaries earned by some of the top administrators in a health care system that serves the poor and uninsured. Commissioner William Beavers, a South Side Democrat, has been among the loudest, referring to them at one meeting recently as “pin-striped pimps.”
“The nurses and doctors aren’t getting the raises. All of these people getting raises are administrators,” Beavers told the Sun-Times again last week, adding: “They’re pin-stripe pimps.”
Decision-makers all the way up to Foley recommended pay raises for six employees, with four tied to promotions, and the independent governing board OK’d them, said county health and hospitals spokesman Lucio Guerrero.
“We don’t live in a vaccum, we know what’s going on at the county,” Guerrero said. “But we still have a health system to run. We’re not even paying market salaries. They’ve all taken on new duties, bigger responsibilities.”
A letter from Foley and independent board chairman Warren L. Batts notifying county commissioners of the promotions and raises appears on the agenda for Tuesday’s regular county board meeting. But late last week, there were some questions among commissioners and staff about whether commissioners had the final word on matters involving the independently governed health and hospitals system.
Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin says the county board controls the purse strings of the county budget and most certainly can intervene — either now or during upcoming discussion of the 2011 budget.
“If we don’t accept this, they may have to modify or take back the raises,” said Suffredin, a Democrat.
He led the charge to wrest control of the health and hospital system, long a patronage dumping ground, from the County Board president and put day-to-day management in the hands of independent health care professionals.
While Beavers was against independent governance, he and Suffredin agree on this much: Giving out raises, especially in the face of a budget crisis, is inappropriate.
As it is, the county is trying to close an estimated $487 million hole in what is expected to be a $3.2 billion budget next year, according to new County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The health and hospitals system represents one-third of the budget.
Preckwinkle and a group of other commissioners will introduce a measure Tuesday calling for a review of salaries in the health and hospital system.
Guerrero points out the health system isn’t asking for more money to cover the raises and that the system is under budget for the year. He also said health officials are prepared to make the cuts necessary to help keep the county in the black.
But Commissioner Bridget Gainer said the county still has to pay pension benefits over the long-haul and that gets expensive quickly, particularly when the six-figure salaries are going not just to the very top administrators but also their deputies.
“We respect the independent board . . . but I would argue they need to be a little more sensitive in these salaries,” Gainer said. “We are a government entity and we are funded by taxpayers.”
The biggest pay hike went to John Cookinham, the chief financial officer for Oak Forest and Provident hospitals, along with the 16 health clinics countywide. His pay went from $125,000 to $165,000 — to correct what health system officials state in county documents as a “compensation error.”
Right up there with him is Thomas Dohm, who jumped from the job of assistant director of dietary at Oak Forest Hospital to associate administrator of the south suburban facility that included a $25,000 pay increase. He now earns $114,093.
Most of the promotions and pay raises went to administrators who have some kind of management duties at Oak Forest Hospital, which will close in May to make way for a regional urgent care center, Guerrero acknowleged.
Asked why promotions and pay raises are being handed out for jobs overseeing the facility, Guerrero said: “These positions still exist,” and the hospital still needs to be managed. “Once it changes over, there will be some discussion then about any changes in management.”