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Brian McGrory

Trust? It’s on life support

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / February 9, 2011

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Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Maybe I subscribe to some outdated view of a world in which corporate executives tell the truth to the community in which they work.

But what’s gone on at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center over the past year is an absolute insult to any right-minded Bostonian. The leadership at BIDMC hasn’t just violated the public trust, it has completely trampled it, basically flinging the remnants in the face of the region it is supposed to serve.

It began in April, when an anonymous letter revealed that hospital chief executive Paul Levy had hired and promoted a woman with whom he was having a personal relationship. She worked in jobs that didn’t exist before she arrived and were eliminated after she left. The hospital board of directors reacted by revealing virtually nothing about the sordid episode, fining Levy the equivalent of a venti latte and issuing a dismissive statement saying it “considers this matter closed.’’

It wasn’t. Attorney General Martha Coakley launched an investigation that ended with her urging the board to do “some soul-searching’’ about Levy’s future.

It didn’t. Rather, board chairman Stephen Kay immediately announced that the best outcome for BIDMC was to keep Levy right where he was.

That didn’t work out so well, either. But in this banner year of theirs, Beth Israel officials saved the best blundering insult — or insulting blunder — for last.

In early January, Levy announced plans to resign, saying he had experienced a campfire epiphany on an African bicycle trip after turning 60 and decided it was time to seek a new challenge. (He may have tossed around more clichés, but there’s no room in that sentence).

There was Kay again, this time saying, “Paul wanted a change. There’s nothing more to it.’’

Oh, but there was, ladies and gentlemen. There was a lot more to it, and it’s called “the truth.’’ That whole resignation thing, the campground clarity, the “nothing more to it,’’ was nothing more than a well-dressed lie.

Because a couple of weeks later, when Kay tried to justify the fact that his board planned to give $1.6 million in severance to Levy, a guy who was leaving under a cloud of scandal, he had little choice but to acknowledge that it wasn’t a resignation at all. It was a negotiated departure, brought on after senior doctors gave Levy mixed performance reviews amid the controversy over his girlfriend’s jobs.

Kay is a former Goldman Sachs executive, Goldman being the firm that needed a federal bailout and was fined $550 million for deceitful practices. Maybe, in his world, this is just how things are done. But it goes to show how little he and others at BIDMC understand the central role that trust plays in a relationship between a hospital and the community it serves.

The public trusts the hospital with its health, its collective life. The hospital, in turn, gets lots of public money. BIDMC pays virtually no property taxes. It receives barrels of state health care payments and federal research money. It vacuums up insurance funds that account for soaring premiums.

Nobody is questioning whether BIDMC has world-class doctors and intelligent nurses. But what it also has is an executive team that is now constantly inviting the question: What else are they lying about?

Kay is hosting a reception this afternoon to honor Levy. Perhaps he could offer, along with his spoken tribute, a public apology for the board members who were aware of Levy’s relationship but failed to act early and forcefully.

Then he could announce his resignation from the board. He may be a good man who has done good things at BIDMC. But even more than Levy, he has spent so much credibility he has nothing left. And Coakley should launch a review into whether the $1.6 million severance is a justifiable way to spend public money.

BIDMC is in dire need of a fresh start. It’s just the truth.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.