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Nurses union seeks greater hospital financial disclosure

Executive pay, financials targeted

The state’s largest nurses union is pressing forward with a bid to require greater financial disclosure by Massachusetts hospitals and limit the pay of top hospital executives, moves fiercely opposed by the hospital industry.

Massachusetts Nurses Association officials delivered a petition to Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office last week signed by more than 100,000 voters calling for a new state law mandating more openness by hospital systems in reporting their finances and seeking to redress disparities between the state’s richest and poorest hospitals.

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Among other things, the proposed law would force hospitals to detail all funds in offshore accounts, cap hospital chief executive salaries at 100 times that of their lowest-paid workers, and take back what union leaders called “excess profits” to be put in a fund that would help financially distressed hospitals treat patients in underserved communities.

“We’re trying to make sure people know how much money some of these hospitals really have and make sure they’re using the money to provide health services rather than build up big corporate networks, hoard their profits, and pay their CEOs a lot of money,” said David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Canton-based nurses union.

Schildmeier said some self-insured hospitals keep money in overseas accounts but aren’t required to say how much or what the money is used for. He said several hospital chief executives drawing total compensation of more than $2 million are paid more than 100 times the wages of their lowest-paid workers. He also said some affluent hospital systems post operating margins exceeding 8 percent while poorer hospitals break even or lose money.

“We have a system of haves and have-nots,” Schildmeier said. “We have hospitals that are very rich and have a strategy of serving mostly wealthy communities, and we have other community hospitals and safety-net hospitals that are struggling.”

A second petition, previously disclosed by the union, was also submitted to Galvin’s office last week. It would create a law setting strict limits on the number of hospital patients assigned to each nurse. The two petitions — delivered to the secretary of state theatrically on a hospital gurney — represent the first time the nurses association has led campaigns to create Massachusetts laws to protect patients and nurses, union leaders said.

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The hospital industry’s trade group released a statement opposing what it called “arbitrary limits on hospital operating margins and compensation.” The Massachusetts Hospital Association, based in Burlington, said its members should be held accountable, but already report extensive financial and clinical data to state and federal regulators.

Adding more disclosure requirements to the current regulatory burden would be “duplicative and unnecessary,” association president Lynn Nicholas said in an interview. She also said government regulators, who have no responsibility for running hospitals, should not be determining levels of executive compensation or operating margins.

“It’s really naive to think patients would be well-served in the long run by placing mandated limits on market-based compensation for hospital CEOs,” said Nicholas. “It would erode the capable leadership we have at the Commonwealth’s hospitals.”

Brian S. McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state, confirmed Tuesday that the nurses union filed the two ballot initiatives. He said they appeared to have more than enough signatures for Galvin’s office to refer them to the Legislature next month.

Lawmakers will have until May to pass the laws. If they don’t, or if they modify the measures in a way the union deems inadequate, Schildmeier said nurses will collect 11,000 more signatures — the number needed to put the proposals before voters as ballot questions next November. Schildmeier said, “Given how easy it was to get these signatures, we think we have a really good shot of getting voters to approve these initiatives.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.

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