Tacoma Doctor Richard Waltman Asks for Pay Cut--and Is Rejected

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As we all know, doctors make a lot of money--too much money, some would say, looking at our desperate need to reduce the cost of health care. American doctors in particular are excessively well paid; they earn on average four times more than their French counterparts. It's notable therefore that Tacoma doctor Richard Waltman is volunteering to take a 10 percent pay cut--and suggesting that his colleagues do the same.

In the best of times, Waltman, a longtime physician specializing in geriatrics, might not have come to this decision. But this is not the best of times. His employer, Tacoma's MultiCare Health Systems, announced last week that it was cutting 350 positions. The announcement was big news in Pierce County, where MultiCare, with four hospitals and a staff of 9,500, is the largest private employer.

Pierce County is also less affluent than our own county, a fact reflected in the patient population. Fully half of MultiCare's patients receive Medicare or Medicaid benefits, says organization spokesperson Marce Edwards. That meant it was hard-hit by the state's cuts to Medicaid reimbursement that came out of the last brutalizing legislative session. MultiCare expects to lose $37.6 million in the next two years, and millions more in charity write-offs that have accelerated in the recession.

In steps Waltman, who sent an e-mail to colleagues suggesting that top-paid staff scale back their pay in order to prevent the layoffs. Waltman was in no danger of being sacked himself. MultiCare is not getting rid of any physicians, according to Edwards. Instead, he was, as he put it in the e-mail, concerned about doing everything possible "to keep our wonderful workforce intact."

More than 200 people responded positively, according to The News Tribune.

Too bad MultiCare is not taking the suggestion seriously. While Edwards tells SW that "we're considering all options," she also says that "we are going to proceed with the planned layoff reductions."

"It's a strategic decision," she elaborates. Given the need to contain costs as federal health care reform comes down the pike, the organization needed to trim its staff sooner or later.

But wouldn't a great strategic decision be to allow doctors--and hospital administrators--to offer a small sacrifice in the name of their lesser-paid colleagues and the need to trim health-care spending? As the federal government now weighs further reimbursement cuts, and hospitals locally and nationally consider their next moves, MultiCare is missing an opportunity to set a precedent and turn its doctors into heroes.

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