AUGUSTA — An Auburn lawmaker has submitted a bill that would cap the salaries of Maine hospital executives at the same salary as the governor.
The proposal may not get far in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but it could heighten the debate among hospital executives frustrated by about $400 million the state and federal governments owe in unpaid subsidies, and Democrats who claim those same executives are cutting staff and services while increasing their own pay.
Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, submitted the bill, LD 29, last week. He said that because the hospitals are state subsidized, government should have some say in how much their administrators are paid.
Jeffrey Austin, a lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association, disagreed, saying Bolduc's bill appeared to "slap down" administrators for publicizing the government-owed debt.
Bolduc's bill, which on Wednesday had no co-sponsors, would make it so hospital executives could earn no more than the Maine governor, who makes about $70,000 per year.
Bolduc said he was appalled to learn in a Sun Journal story that hospital executives were given raises after telling the state they had to cut staff and services because of money owed by the government.
"I remember going to a meeting with these executives early this year and they read us the riot act, giving us all these facts and figures," he said. "After I left that meeting I recalled (the Sun Journal story) about the pay raises they were receiving. ... If things are as bad as they say, they all should feel the pain."
Bolduc specifically cited the salaries of three hospital executives: Peter Chalke, president of Central Maine Medical Center; William Caron, president of MaineHealth in Portland; and Vincent Conti, former president of Maine Medical Center.
According to the latest IRS nonprofit filings, Conti received $3.24 million in 2008, Caron, $1.2 million and Chalke, $1.15 million.
According to the Sun Journal story, Chalke's salary doubled to $2 million in 2006 amid pleas to former Gov. John Baldacci by CMMC and the state's other 38 hospitals for the state to pay its debts.
Chalke's salary decreased in 2008.
Representatives from all three hospitals declined to comment on Bolduc's proposal and referred questions to Austin, the lobbyist for the MHA.
Austin said hospitals were frustrated by Bolduc's bill.
"We're disappointed that the response to speaking out about significant debts ... is to submit legislation that slaps you down, and says 'we're going to cap all administrators' pay at the governor's pay,'" Austin said.
Austin said questions about administrators' pay were "fair game," but he said hospitals were frustrated by the context of the argument, which he said appeared to be politically motivated.
During the previous years of the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation that attempted to cap and make more transparent hospital profits.
Republicans, meanwhile, have made paying back hospitals part of their campaign platform. Two weeks before the last election, Gov. Paul LePage, then a candidate for governor, held a rally in front of CMMC, saying, "Decisions made in Augusta are putting a burden on the backs of Maine hospitals."
Bolduc said he didn't know whether his bill would succeed, but he wanted to take the issue to the public.
"The spotlight should be on it," he said. "I'm convinced the public will want to know more about this."
Austin said administrators' salaries are set by boards of trustees and measured against performance and their peers.
But Bolduc said he wasn't convinced the executives had the "magical powers" to justify their pay.
"If you can run the state on $70,000 a year (the governor's salary), then you should be able to run a hospital," Bolduc said.
Austin said Bolduc's bill wasn't the first time lawmakers have tried to cap executive salaries, but he hoped this proposal would meet a similarly unsuccessful end.
"We would hope that the new Legislature wouldn't take onto itself the role of second-guessing the hundreds of trustees in the state who are responsible for coming up with these compensation figures," Austin said.
The Rhode Island Legislature attempted to cap hospital executives' salaries. The measure initially drew some support, passing that state's Senate. However, the bill reportedly died in the House after it was altered in committee.
Bolduc's bill has been referred to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.