Opinion:  Health care CEOs  make a killing

CVS’ greed also has ignored its customers’ basic needs.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to weep uncontrollably, laugh hysterically or just throw up.

I recently did all three when I saw another gusher of greed pouring out of corporate America. This one is especially nauseating, given today’s raging health crisis, for the culprits are major health care corporations!

One perpetrator is Larry Merlo, CEO of our country’s largest drugstore chain, CVS. In this time of COVID-19, customers are surging into the chain’s 10,000 stores for everything from medications to masks. Yet, the boss has blithely left many of the pharmacies so severely understaffed that they pose a danger to public health.

CVS 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-thru, 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 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.

Adding to the exasperation of local managers, who are allowed no say in staffing, is the infuriating level of heedless greed at the top. The New York Times reports that while CEO Merlo has failed to fund the staff his pharmacies need, 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.

[pullquote-1] Meanwhile... The holy mantra of health professionals was coined about 2,500 years ago by the Greek physician Hippocrates: “Do no harm.”

But that was before corporate health care took charge and asserted a new guiding ethic: “Jack up profits.” Putting this in practice, America’s largest and richest hospital chains rushed to the front of the COVID-19 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.

The bailout was intended to keep hospital workers on the job, yet the wealthiest chains have hit nurses, janitors and other crucial, frontline staffers with layoffs, pay cuts and deadly shortages of protective gear. For example, HCA, the $36-billion-a-year behemoth that’s wallowing in profits, snatched a billion-dollar taxpayer bailout, then demanded hospital staffers accept wage freezes, elimination of company pension payments, and other cuts… or have thousands of jobs eliminated.

However, in a public show of compassion, HCA’s chief exec Samuel Hazen donated two months of his $1.4 million salary to an employee support fund.

How magnanimous! Uh, no. His salary, augmented by an annual bonus, stock payouts and other compensation, will be $26 million this year, meaning his “donation” represents less than 1 percent.