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Watchdog: Cook County Health senior officials’ hefty raises exceeded caps, should be discontinued

Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Lolly Bowean

The chief financial officer of Cook County Health system was given a $60,000 pay raise this year, lifting his salary by 25% from $240,000 to $300,000, according to a recent watchdog report.

Ekerete Akpan was one of nine high-ranking Cook County Health employees who were given robust pay raises without the county providing the proper approval on paperwork, according to the report. In addition, the pay increases exceeded the county’s protocol, which caps pay raises at 6%, the Office of the Independent Inspector General determined in its quarterly report.

After investigating the salary bumps, Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s office recommended that the pay increases be discontinued. But county health system officials rejected that suggestion without reason, the report shows.

 Despite Blanchard’s report, an attorney for the health system said administrators did obtain the proper approvals and justified the salary increases, but turned the paperwork in too late.

“While we followed all the steps ... we mistakenly neglected to turn that paperwork in to the IG at the time we were supposed to do it,” McCutchan said.

Blanchard’s office released the third-quarter report last week. The report comes as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been touting her proposed $6.2 billion spending plan for the 2020 fiscal year, which includes no new taxes or fee increases.

While Preckwinkle has boasted her ability to eliminate what was once a triple-digit deficit, she has raised concerns about future projected budget gaps that are a result of operating two hospitals that mainly provide care to poorer residents.

In her analysis, Preckwinkle wasn’t critical of county health system staff salaries or compensation packages.

According to the inspector general’s report, pay raises at the hospital are supposed to be approved by the deputy CEO or someone in a comparable position. But in this case, the paperwork outlining these large salary jumps for nonunion staff was written by a human resources analyst.

The required paperwork to implement the salary changes did not include proper language justifying the pay raises for these employees, the report said. In addition, the pay increases were implemented in January, but the paperwork outlining the raises wasn’t submitted until June.

Akpan received the highest salary bump, which pushed his annual salary up by $60,000 a year, according to the report.

For example, the chief human resources officer, Barbara Banks Pryor, received a pay raise of 9.4%, which lifted her annual salary by $19,552 from $208,000 to $227,552.

Five senior-level executives got two-step increases that also exceeded standard protocols, the report found. First their pay was bumped up in 2018, then they received a “longevity” increase, which is essentially a financial bonus simply for staying in the job.

For example, the chief of communications and marketing, Caryn Stancik, received a pay raise of $31,000 in 2018, which lifted her annual salary from $200,000 to $231,000, the report shows. Then she was given a longevity increase of 9.2%, which lifted her pay by an additional $20,160 so that she now makes $251,160, the report found.

employee received a 6% longevity bonus, bringing the salary to $220,183, the report shows.

McCutchan said the pay increases were supported by the hospital’s board and basically help to raise the executives’ pay in line with what other hospitals are paying.

The majority of the workforce is in a union and received regular raises, he said. But “these employees received no increases over that same time period.”

McCutchan said the pay increases were part of a board strategy to recruit the best in leadership to the hospital.

For example, the chief of communications and marketing, Caryn Stancik, received a pay raise of $31,000 in 2018, which lifted her annual salary from $200,000 to $231,000, the report shows. Then she was given a longevity increase of 9.2%, which lifted her pay by an additional $20,160 so that she now makes $251,160, the report found.

Similarly, the director of finance for CountyCare saw a salary increase of $34,618, which raised the pay rate from $173,102 to $207,720. Then that employee received a 6% longevity bonus, bringing the salary to $220,183, the report shows.

McCutchan said the pay increases were supported by the hospital’s board and basically help to raise the executives’ pay in line with what other hospitals are paying.

The majority of the workforce is in a union and received regular raises, he said. But “these employees received no increases over that same time period.”

McCutchan said the pay increases were part of a board strategy to recruit the best in leadership to the hospital.

“The particular positions have been identified as ones that were being paid at nearly the bottom level,” he said. “When we pay that low, it makes it difficult or even impossible to recruit people here.

“Seventy-five percent of their (hospital) counterparts are getting paid higher,” he said.he case is still under investigation, Blanchard said Monday.

“The salary increases were remarkable. Under the rules, they may be appropriate, but we don’t have (documentation of) their reasoning,” Blanchard said. Hospital officials “did submit a response that addressed the concerns. That response continues to be deficient.”


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