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Did Hospice Fire Worker With Cancer?

Hospice of Palm Beach County raised its CEO’s pay 30 percent to $710,537 the same year a mother of three said the organization fired her because she could work only 30 hours a week while fighting breast cancer – a situation the hospice’s founder called “outrageous.”

The pay was revealed in financial records for 2011 requested by The Palm Beach Post last year but not released until 2014 by the nonprofit hospice. Its founding mission: to provide palliative care for people with terminal illnesses including cancer.

Mitsy Tucker said she was a secretary coordinating care for patients at home when she was stunned to receive a termination letter saying her last day would be Dec. 19, 2011. In her own letter, Tucker pleaded with CEO Dave Fielding to help her understand why she was fired six days before Christmas.

“The termination happened during one of the most difficult times of my life, a very challenging time frame where I was being treated for breast cancer,” Tucker wrote.

She said she could work only 30 hours a week after a leave for a double mastectomy because she needed continuing treatment, including chemotherapy. A termination letter reminded her, “Failure to return to full duty after completion of Family Medical Leave may result in termination of the employee’s employment.”

Mitsy Tucker says she needed to work only 30 hours a week to get treatment for her breast cancer.

Hospice officials declined to confirm or dispute Tucker’s account, but the founder of the organization found it troubling.

“It is outrageous to treat your own employee like that,” said Stella Monchick-West, who founded Hospice of Palm Beach County in her own home in 1978 and is now retired. “That’s unconscionable. Hospice of Palm Beach County shows such compassion to their patients and their families. Why wouldn’t they show that compassion to their employees?”

Fielding received more than $288,000 in bonuses, including an “incentive bonus” based on the organization’s financial results, a $100,000 “retention bonus” and $65,000 in “deferred compensation” to boost his 2011 pay, records show. His bonuses alone amounted to more than 10 times what Tucker said was her annual pay.

A statement from Hospice of Palm Beach County said, “Positive employee relations are the cornerstone of our organization, and out of respect for the individual’s privacy we cannot comment on a specific case. Our commitment to fair treatment for all employees is well known in the community.”

As for executive compensation, “plans are determined by third-party compensation consultants on an annual basis, and administered by the compensation committee of our local board of directors,” the statement said. “Executive compensation is set within standard industry guidelines.”

A little more than two years after her firing, Tucker, 48, said she is fighting to remain cancer-free but has been unable to get a new job in the meantime. She said she is doing the best she can on Medicaid and Social Security benefits but cannot afford a breast reconstruction procedure, for example.

Tucker said she was born in Jamaica and moved to Palm Beach County in 1975. After losing her job, she said she was unable to afford the premiums under a program to extend her health insurance. Her children rallied to help her as best they could, she said. She said she has two grown daughters, one recently named a teacher of the year at her elementary school, and a son who is an Iraq War veteran in the Army Reserves. She has three grandchildren.

“He did not even respond,” Tucker recalled at her Riviera Beach home about the letter to the CEO. “That, most of all, was my biggest disappointment.”

In 2012, The Post reported the hospice let go of nearly 5 percent of its workforce, more than 30 employees, around Memorial Day, even as executive pay was rising to average more than $300,000 apiece among the top 12 officers, according to the latest records then available. A hospice statement blamed in part a “challenging economy,” though officials said they later hired more than 50 employees.

Company officials acknowledged at the time that executive compensation included bonuses tied partly to the organization’s “gross margin” – meaning money left after expenses – but denied that executives had incentives to increase their paychecks by firing workers.

By Tucker’s account, she received a good performance review before a devastating diagnosis of breast cancer in 2011, which forced to her take a leave while she underwent a double mastectomy. She never dreamed she would be fired because she could not work a full 40 hours a week on her return, she said. She wrote to Fielding that she considered the hospice “my second family.”

The hospice told The Post last year that an IRS Form 990 document showing executive compensation for 2011 was not available. It was finally turned over in January along with records showing Fielding’s 2012 compensation falling to $355,980.

Fielding’s 2011 compensation jumped by almost a third to more than $710,000 from $545,897 in 2010, which was itself a 16 percent increase over 2009, according to IRS filings. His compensation dropped to just over $350,000 in 2012. Beginning in June 2012, Post articles called attention to executive pay amid layoffs.

Total bonus and incentive pay to top executives fell sharply from more than $600,000 in 2011 to less than $7o,000 in 2012, according to IRS filings.

The hospice reported 974 employees for 2010, 885 in 2011 and 898 in 2012.

At the time of the 2012 Memorial Day firings, volunteer hospice board chairman John Marino defended executive pay as appropriate to “attract and retain the best possible people.”

Last week, a hospice statement said, “We have, and will continue to serve our patients and families in an atmosphere of transparency. As a highly regulated Medicare provider, we have an outstanding record of operations. We welcome conversations with the community about any aspect of this story.”

The hospice says in its IRS filing, “Financial statements, governing documents and conflict of interest policies are not required disclosures pursuant to Internal Revenue Service Section 6104. These documents are not available to the public at this time.”

Government payments from Medicare and Medicaid account for most of the hospice’s more than $90 million in annual revenues, records show, but it also solicits millions of dollars in public donations and uses the free labor of 745 volunteers to supplement 898 employees.

The Post reported in 2012 that hospice’s financial records showed it did not need charitable donations to cover its expenses. The latest records then available showed more than enough revenue from federal taxpayers and other non-charitable sources to cover operating costs, including patients whose care was not covered by government or private payments.

Still, two different foundations with similar names have continued to raise money for Hospice of Palm Beach County at annual galas, golf and fishing tournaments. Public donations sent to the hospice have exceeded $22 million over five years, records show, though gifts have declined from $5.2 million in 2008 to $3.2 million in 2012.

NBC “Today” show host Matt Lauer formerly aided fundraising for Hospice of Palm Beach County for many years, but has declined comments for stories including this one through a network spokeswoman.

Fundraising officials said donations are used to cover enhancements not covered by the government such as certain pain-relieving treatments or procedures, music therapy, aromatherapy, education programs and camps for kids.

Hospice of Palm Beach County reported its largest expense paid to any contractor or entity was $21.3 million for “management services” to Trust bridge Inc. for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2013. Trustbridge is the name of the affiliated company that pays CEO Fielding since the hospice’s merger with another Palm Beach County-based nonprofit, Hospice by the Sea, last year.

For Tucker, revelations of executive pay only make it more difficult to come to terms with her treatment by an organization whose website says, “We’re here to ease pain, anxiety and other symptoms, so your family can focus more on each other.”

She was left to fend for herself, she said.

“You preach one thing, but when it was time for me to take my journey, I was left to the wayside,” she said.