Denver City Council members are becoming increasingly vocal about their concerns with Denver Health leadership following recent revelations that the quasi-public agency gave top executives hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses.
“When these entities want to give you information that makes them look good, they will,” said Lisa Calderón, spokesperson for Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, told The Denver Post on Tuesday. “When there’s information that the public wants to know, that they know may not portray these entities in the best light, then the council doesn’t get that information voluntarily.”
Denver Health, like most hospitals, is struggling financially as it responds to the coronavirus pandemic, and has asked all employees — including frontline workers — to take paid time off, reduce hours or take voluntary furloughs.
Calderón said she and CdeBaca met with hospital Chief Executive Officer Robin Wittenstein just a week before the news of the bonuses emerged and specifically asked how lower-wage hospital workers could be protected as much as possible during the financial crisis.
Wittenstein mentioned neither the furloughs nor the bonuses, Calderón said. “She had her opportunity to disclose, and she failed to do so.”
“I think that omission resulted in a breach of trust after we found out about the bonuses,” she added later in a text message.
A Denver Health spokesperson said the executive has been in touch with council members regularly.
“Robin Wittenstein as well as other leadership have maintained communication over the last several months in regards to Denver Health’s response to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said in an email when asked about the CdeBaca meeting. “Mostly recently, Robin has been in communication with council members since the story broke last week.”
CdeBaca and Councilman Chris Hinds blocked a last-minute vote Monday to accept $38.6 million from FEMA for Denver Health and other Denver agencies, delaying the vote for a week.
Hinds said he had questions about both the grant agreement and the health system that hadn’t been answered. The councilman said he asked Denver Health officials about the bonuses and furloughs Friday and still hadn’t heard back Tuesday.
“I’m not opposed to people getting bonuses,” he said. “I’m opposed to them getting bonuses at the same time other people get pay cuts.”
Councilman Kevin Flynn didn’t oppose Monday night’s vote but he, too, has questions, such as whether hospital executives are part of the Denver Employee Retirement Program and whether those bonuses would inflate their pensions. If so, other city employees would essentially be forced to subsidize those executive pensions, he said.
“Denver Health can expect that the next budget cycle that we’re going to have a talk about a number of issues,” Flynn said.
Of Denver Health’s $1.1 billion operating budget, $56 million comes from the city of Denver. That money consists of $30.7 million to provide health care to uninsured patients in the county and $25.3 million for services, such as care for inmates at the city jail and public health services, according to documents from the hospital.
More about those bonuses
On April 10, at least 12 Denver Health executives received bonuses, ranging from more than $29,000 to more than $230,000, according to data obtained by The Post.
The bonuses, which were first reported by CBS4, came as Denver Health employees were asked to voluntarily take paid time off or leave without pay. So far, there have been no layoffs at Denver Health.
Similar steps are occurring at hospitals across the state as health systems take a financial hit from the cancellation or delay of elective surgeries and other services — a move aimed at freeing up bed space and equipment for patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Wittenstein received the largest bonus, getting $230,275 on top of her $967,155 base salary.
She was followed by Connie Price, chief medical officer, and Peggy Burnette, chief financial officer. Price received more than $95,000 as a bonus in addition to a base salary of $507,200, while Burnette received more than $93,000 on top of her $530,600 salary, according to compensation data provided by Denver Health.
On Monday, Wittenstein apologized to Denver Health employees about the bonuses in a letter to staff.
“Being informed of incentive payments now to the executive staff, no matter what the explanation, has clearly been painful and dividing, especially because you did not hear about this from me directly first,” she wrote. “For this, I am deeply sorry.”
In the letter, Wittenstein said a large portion of executives’ salary is considered “at risk,” meaning that they receive a base pay and then earn a certain amount on top of that if Denver Health achieves its budget and goals each year. If the hospital does not hit the goals, then executives do not receive the payments.
Wittenstein wrote that the bonuses were not paid in two of the past four years. Denver Health’s leadership team as a whole is also cutting its hours, and therefore pay, by 12%, she said.
As of April 20, Wittenstein is using paid time off instead of her regular salary to “save” Denver Health two days of her regular salary during each 10-day pay period. She is also waiving her ability to accrue paid time off, according to Denver Health.
She has pledged $100,000 to the Denver Health Foundation, which has an employee relief fund, and the first payment was made in December, according to her letter to staff.
Despite his concern about the bonuses, Hinds fell short of characterizing the relationship between Denver Health and the council as a problem. That issue is just one data point, he said.
“If this data point becomes the pattern, that’s a problem,” he said.