Keeping company executives healthy

Enhanced physicals designed to keep the heads of companies fit

  • Bimal Ashar, who heads Johns Hopkins Hospital's executive health program, talks with patient Randy Harris, who runs human resources at Ciena Corp.
Bimal Ashar, who heads Johns Hopkins Hospital's executive… (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
February 06, 2011|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

At least once a year, executives from Ciena Corp. spend a day at Johns Hopkins Hospital getting poked and prodded as they undergo tests for a barrage of potential ailments, from anemia to prostate cancer.

They aren't necessarily feeling ill or showing any symptoms.

In fact, the executives of Linthicum-based Ciena are often healthy — and their company wants to keep it that way. The $2,000-per-person prices for these full-body examinations are considered an essential corporate expense. Ciena and other companies with "executive health" perks say it's in their best interest to keep the top ranks well.

"They need to monitor their health on a regular basis so they're there to lead and direct the company," said Randy Harris, chief human resources officer at Ciena.

While the special care for executives is sometimes criticized by shareholders and workers who say the health plans offered to rank-and-file employees should be just as good, corporate pay experts say the health perks are less controversial — and in some cases less costly — than incentives such as private jets and country club memberships.

And corporate chiefs point to Apple Inc. as an example of what can go wrong.

Last month, chief executive Steve Jobs, who co-founded the company and has been credited with its success, made headlines when he announced he would take another medical leave after a six-month absence to undergo a liver transplant two years ago. In both instances, jittery investors worried about the direction of the company sent Apple shares plunging. (Apple doesn't have a separate executive health program.)

Medical problems among the executive ranks — particularly the CEO — can cause concern about the stability of a company. When Baltimore-born Reginald F. Lewis died of brain cancer in 1993, there was concern that his company, TLC Beatrice International Holdings, would be taken over.

And historically, some companies have even tried to hide the illness of executives to protect the business. In 1988, AT&T kept secret that CEO James Olson was suffering from colon cancer, which eventually killed him, according to news reports at the time. Company officials revealed the illness only after questioning from reporters who had heard rumors about his health.

A number of health care providers have tailored programs to provide concierge and specialized services for the busy executive. And companies are signing up.

Executive physicals and other wellness programs have been one type of perk that has remained in the past couple of years even as other compensation came under scrutiny, especially during the recession, by shareholders and cost-cutting companies. Other perks include reimbursement for out-of-pocket health expenses and gym memberships.

Last year, 32 Fortune 100 companies paid for executive physicals for their CEOs, according to Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. That was the same number as the year before. Included in that list was the CEO of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin. The company did not disclose the cost of that annual exam in financial filings.

Hopkins Hospital tailored its program to cater to harried executives who might travel frequently or find it hard to break away from meetings and the everyday grind to see a doctor.

About 1,200 patients come through the program a year. The program has expanded beyond CEOs of large companies to small-business owners and other individuals who pay for the service themselves. A UPS truck driver recently took the physical at Hopkins, said Bimal Ashar, who heads the program.

The day starts with collecting the executive's medical history, followed by blood tests, a chest X-ray, an eye examination, an EKG to test heart condition and nutrition counseling. The patients also undergo a hearing test and a pulmonary function exam to check for emphysema, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.

Ashar said they have diagnosed pancreatic cancer, liver disease and prostate cancer in patients who have come through the program. They have also performed bypass surgery and inserted stents in patients discovered to have heart disease.

Constellation Energy Group pays for optional annual exams for their executives through the Hopkins program. Five executives, including Chairman and CEO Mayo A. Shattuck III, chose to have the exams last year.

"The board sees value in providing an extra inducement for the officers in the company to not put physicals off and to regularly get a comprehensive checkup," said Lawrence McDonnell, director of corporate communications at Constellation. McDonnell said the management team is a "vital asset to the company."

Financial services company Capital One, with 2,000 employees and 130 branches in Maryland, offers its executives optional physicals through Hopkins and two other institutions as a way for them to "stay healthy and support their effectiveness," according to a company spokeswoman.

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