executive compensation

Last week, in LeadingAge New York, Inc. v. Shah, the New York Court of Appeals addressed Department of Health regulations limiting executive compensation and administrative expenditures by healthcare providers receiving state funds. The Court upheld limits related to state funding, but struck down a limit that applied regardless of the source of funding.

In 2012, Governor Cuomo directed agencies providing state funding to service providers to regulate provider use of state funds for executive compensation and administrative costs. DOH responded with regulations restricting state-funded expenditures on administrative expenses and executive compensation for certain defined “covered providers.”

The regulations had two “hard caps,” one limiting administrative expenses to 15% of covered operating expenses paid with State funds, and one limiting the use of State funds for executive compensation to $199,000, absent a waiver. The regulations also had one “soft cap,” providing for penalties to a covered provider if executive compensation exceeded $199,000 from any source of funding, with specified exceptions concerning comparable provider compensation and board approval. Covered executives included those for whom salary and benefits were administrative expenses, and excluded clinical and program personnel.

Several petitioners challenged the regulations, including nursing homes, assisted-living programs, home-care agencies and trade associations.

The Court of Appeals grounded its decision in the separation of powers doctrine, which requires that “the Legislature make the critical policy decisions, while the executive branch’s responsibility is to implement those policies.” Chief Judge DiFiore looked to the Court’s prior decision in Boreali v. Axelrod for guidance in finding “the difficult-to-define line between administrative rule-making and legislative policy-making.”

The Court first reviewed the function of DOH, which manages state funds earmarked for public health, oversees the Medicaid program, and contracts with private entities. The Court said that DOH carries out these functions with the goal of ensuring that the limited public funding available be directed as efficiently as possible toward high-quality services.

The Court concluded that the hard cap regulations on both administrative expenses and executive compensation did not exceed DOH’s authority. The Legislature directed that DOH oversee the efficient expenditure of state health care funds. The hard caps are tied to the specific goal of efficiently directing state funds toward quality medical care for the public by limiting the extent to which state funds may be used for non-service-related salaries and disproportionately high administrative budgets. The Court found the hard cap regulations to be directly tied to the Legislative policy goal without subverting it in favor of unrelated public policy interests.

In contrast, the Court struck down the soft cap regulation, which restricted executive compensation over $199,000 regardless of funding source, because it represented “an unauthorized excursion by DOH beyond the parameters set by the Legislature.” The Court found that while the hard cap regulations capped the use of public funding, the soft cap imposed an overall cap on executive compensation, regardless of the funding source. “The soft cap thus pursues a policy consideration – limited executive compensation – that is not clearly connected to the objectives outlined by the Legislature but represents a distinct ‘value judgment.’” The soft cap restriction on executive compensation was not “sufficiently tethered” to the enabling legislation which largely concerned state funding. The Court concluded that the soft cap regulation exceeded DOH’s administrative authority as it envisioned the additional goal of limiting executive compensation as a matter of public policy.

All members of the Court of Appeals agreed that the hard cap on administrative expenditures was permissible, but the dissenting Judges differed on executive compensation.  Judge Garcia would have stricken both hard and soft caps on executive compensation, because they represented a “policy choice about reasonable compensation aimed at influencing corporate behavior,” which is “law-making beyond DOH’s regulatory authority.”  In contrast, Judge Wilson would had found both limits to be permissible.  He criticized the majority’s reliance on Boreali, and saw the proper analysis to be whether the regulation exceeded the executive power.  He would have used that rationale to uphold the hard cap on executive compensation, and also would have found the soft cap permissible because it advance the statutory goals of preventing providers from circumventing the hard cap and advising providers the State may allocate taxpayer funds away from undesireable or inefficient vendors and toward competitors who provide superior value.

At least where State funds are at issue, LeadingAge provides the Governor and executive agencies with broad authority to police and restrict the use of State funding.