Category: Finance

“She Lied to My Face”: Inside the Hectic Last Days of Gymboree’s Retail Bankruptcy

Mera Chung had known for weeks that her 30-year career in retail was coming to an end. But Chung, a vice president of design for Crazy 8, a division of Gymboree Group Inc., wasn’t prepared for what CEO Shaz Kahng and human resources chief Bridget Schickedanz would tell her late on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-January.

They had called Chung in to inform her of an imminent bankruptcy filing, Gymboree’s second in two years, which would accompany the liquidation of two of the company’s three brands, including Crazy 8, which caters to lower-income parents. Chung was ready for that; the closure of Crazy 8 was announced in December, and the bankruptcy was long rumored. But then Schickedanz dropped the bomb.

“She said, ‘We had to make some other decisions and you’ve been impacted,’” Chung explains. “‘We had to terminate the severance plan.’”

The severance plan, according to Chung and two of her close friends, was a key reason why she decided to move to Gymboree from Old Navy five years earlier. The retail sector’s volatility has boiled over recently, with rapid-fire bankruptcies and store closures emptying malls across the country, much of it driven by private-equity firms busting out otherwise profitable companies. But Chung, a single parent caring for an elderly father, came to Gymboree because she knew she’d be due a year’s worth of salary if the company ever went belly-up.

Instead, on the same day as the bankruptcy filing, Gymboree’s board triggered Article VII of the severance plan, a self-destruct button that enabled the company to terminate the plan “at any time in any respect” via a majority vote from the board of directors. As a result, none of the roughly 400 staff members at Gymboree headquarters in San Francisco would receive severance, to say nothing of the nearly 10,000 clerks at 800 Gymboree and Crazy 8 locations, who would now be managing going-out-of-business sales without the promise of assistance in the aftermath.

Kahng told Chung that there just wasn’t enough cash available to pay severance. But Chung said she had information, which she would later share with the U.S. bankruptcy trustee overseeing the case, that at least a few executives would leave Gymboree with golden parachutes.

A few weeks earlier, she had learned about a confidential deal between the board and eight members of Gymboree’s executive leadership team. According to Chung, those executives received paper checks with a “retention bonus” equal in value to their severance payouts. The board, which includes representatives from hedge funds and private equity firms, told the executives to deposit the checks immediately. Bankruptcy experts often call this type of payment a “disguised severance.”

Chung heard this firsthand from one of the bonus recipients. Chung had an equivalent title to most of the members who she was told received the bonuses, but she was left out. She would later tell the bankruptcy trustee in a letter that she watched as four of those bonus recipients jetted off to the Sundance Film Festival, just days after Gymboree declared bankruptcy.

In the meeting, Chung had asked, “What about the retention bonuses the others have, including you?” referring to Schickedanz, a member of the executive leadership team. Kahng would only reply, “That is not an appropriate question and I will not comment on it.”

Chung said she had replied, “The answer is what’s not appropriate.”

Gymboree, founded in 1976, is on its way to history. Children’s Place, a rival retailer, paid $76 million for the rights to the Gymboree and Crazy 8 brands, and the Gap is purchasing Gymboree’s 139-store luxury chain, Janie and Jack. But the disguised severance maneuver Chung has alleged reveals how in corporate America, the winners at the top can win even in failure. And nobody else is safe — certainly not the line-level workers, but not even vice presidents like Mera Chung.

The Intercept has reviewed documents confirming the termination of the severance plan on the day of the bankruptcy. Chung made her allegations about the disguised severance to friends, attorneys, and bankruptcy officials in the weeks after Gymboree’s filing, according to interviews and documents. And Julie Thompson, a vice president of product integrity and compliance for Gymboree, also said in a separate interview that bonus payouts were made to the executive leadership team.

Moreover, Chung alleged to the trustee that Gymboree underreported the extent of the retention bonus payments in a filing with the bankruptcy court. In that filing, Gymboree acknowledges “discretionary bonus payments of $270,000 to two employees,” but Chung asserts that eight executives received bonuses totaling an estimated $2.1 million.

Gymboree, its executives, and board members have failed to respond to numerous requests for comment through email, phone, and LinkedIn. Calls to the company’s media relations department have gone directly to voicemail. Three calls to personal cellphones of members of Gymboree’s executive leadership team were answered, but the individuals refused to comment.

The situation at Gymboree echoes other recent retail bankruptcies in which executives got a king’s ransom while everyone else got a firm handshake. Toys “R” Us and Sears were approved for millions in executive bonuses, a fact that has enraged advocates for line-level workers. “These are the same handful of people who couldn’t run our company successfully, and they’re being rewarded while everyone’s severance is taken away?” asked Lily Wang, deputy director for Organization United for Respect’s Rise Up Retail campaign.

You can make a case for retention bonuses for top executives in some bankruptcies. They are usually justified as a way to keep the leadership from decamping to other jobs as soon as the bankruptcy is filed. “The rationale is by giving good people retention bonuses so they will stay, the company will have much greater likelihood of reorganizing and getting back on its feet,” said Brett Weiss, a bankruptcy attorney in Maryland.

But in this case, Gymboree was knowingly liquidating most of its business before the bankruptcy was ever filed, making retention bonuses less urgent. “This was a liquidation chapter 11, the executives are not going to be in these positions a year from now,” Weiss said. “Maybe they said, ‘How can we get more money out without having the trustee claw it back? What’s the greatest number of people we can do this for without raising red flags? How about the executive leadership team?’” Gymboree’s lawyers in the bankruptcy case did not respond to a request for comment.

Moreover, while some executives do need to be in place to wind down operations, the alleged bonuses were not uniformly given to executives who had that role. For example, the VP of marketing allegedly got a bonus, even though marketing operations effectively ceased. Meanwhile, Thompson’s job involved regulatory compliance, which any retailer still selling products (even in a going-out-of-business sale) needs to maintain. Yet she was denied a bonus and fired without severance.

The situation has left Chung devastated. “Me and this other woman were the altar sacrifices for the others to get paid,” she says. “People have to understand how vulnerable they are.”

Chung was recruited to Gymboree five years ago by her former boss at Old Navy, where she was the vice president of kids and baby clothing design. She was told that she would have the run of an entire brand, the low-price Crazy 8. “It was their only brand that was relevant,” Chung says. She took the job.

At the time, Gymboree was under the control of Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s old private-equity firm. The private-equity business model involves engaging in buyouts with borrowed money and putting that mountain of debt on the company it purchases, all the while extracting profits from the company through management fees. Few companies, particularly in the high-risk retail sector, can deal with such a debt burden — it makes it difficult to invest in stores, personnel, or better products.

Chung says this showed in how Gymboree ran the business. “Instead of investing in creative talent, they promoted design and merchandising from within,” she says. “Merchandisers became complacent with wanting product they knew would sell from the year before. There were years upon years of awful clothes with poodles and trucks on them.” She also complains that Crazy 8 had no marketing budget, and her work to break with standard fare was practically hidden.

By 2017, Gymboree couldn’t hold out any longer and went into bankruptcy. The business was put in control of its largest creditors, who were private equity and investment firms. The seven-member board included then-CEO of Gymboree, Daniel Griesemer; Ron Beegle, CEO of investment consultant Carriage House Capital Advisers; Matt Perkal, a partner at hedge fund Brigade Capital Management; Brian Hickey from mutual fund firm OppenheimerFunds; and Eric Sondag, a partner at private-equity firm Searchlight Capital, who was made board chair. Other members of the board were not disclosed, and since Gymboree is not a public company, they have no requirement to do so. Apollo Global Management, Marblegate, Nomura Securities, and Tricadia Capital Management also had a share of the company.

Though Gymboree emerged from bankruptcy in decent financial shape, Thompson described the new board as uninterested. “There was zero involvement in what was going on day to day,” she says. “They just let the CEO do whatever he wanted.”

Griesemer decided to invest in a complete redesign of Gymboree’s clothing line. It was a high-cost gamble off the bankruptcy, and it failed; when the new clothes hit stores last summer, parents called them “complete garbage.” Says Thompson: “I started paying attention to sales, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so bad.’ It was negative 20 to 30 percent [compared to the previous year] every single day.”

By November, Griesemer was fired, and Kahng, the new CEO, came in. She had started her career as a food scientist at Kraft and was an independent member of the board prior to being named CEO, according to her LinkedIn page.

“She thought they were going to try to rehab the brand, that this was her career-defining moment,” Chung says. She described one meeting in which Kahng pronounced that Gymboree needed to be a “disruptor” like Apple. “She said, ‘What does every parent experience?’” Chung recalls. “‘Every parent in the world feeds their child strained carrots. When my children were babies, there were carrot stains on everything. We could do something so simple, an orange bib.’ She was 100 percent serious. I barely got through the meeting.”

The disruption didn’t take. By early December, the company announced that it would shutter all Crazy 8 stores after the holidays and significantly reduce the Gymboree footprint. Chung says that in the month after the announcement, Kahng never formally addressed Crazy 8 employees, leaving them confused about their roles. If the brand was closing, there was no need to design or purchase product for the next season. “My team of 20 said, what do we do?” Chung recalls. “They said keep showing up until further notice. They didn’t want to let us go because then they would have to pay severance.”

The Gymboree management severance plan was not a package negotiated individually. It was an employee benefits plan, established under the auspices of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. This has become popular, particularly with large companies, says Jim Keenley, an ERISA attorney in Berkeley, California. The statute provides protections to workers if they aren’t given what’s promised in the severance plan. It offers no protection, however, if the plan is terminated.

“It’s an illusory contract,” says Keenley. “It’s very common for severance plans to have language in them that say, here’s your severance but we can take it away at any time for any reason.” No advance warning is needed for termination, under current law. While retirement benefits under ERISA are better protected, severance plans are considered a welfare benefit, and the funds do not vest.

So employees have no recourse if a termination occurs. And most of them don’t read the fine print allowing companies like Gymboree to pull that trigger. “I didn’t have anyone look at it,” says Thompson. “I was naïve.”

Both Thompson and Chung were told after the 2017 bankruptcy that the severance plan remained active. And both sought further assurances after it was clear that Gymboree would slide into bankruptcy again. Chung says she had asked three colleagues — the general counsel, the VP of human resources, and the general manager of her brand, Crazy 8 — whether her severance would be honored. None gave a straight answer. But Thompson said that when she approached the general counsel, Kimberly MacMillan, in early January, MacMillan reassured her, “Don’t worry, we will file it as a first-day motion.”

In bankruptcy-speak, MacMillan was saying that the severance plan would be one of the payouts that Gymboree would seek to get approved when it filed. Pending court approval, all employees eligible for the severance plan would be compensated. The severance plan was approved in the 2017 bankruptcy, so Thompson trusted MacMillan that the same would happen the second time around. “I had good working relationship with [MacMillan],” Thompson says. “She fucking lied to my face.”

MacMillan, in a short phone call with The Intercept, said that “we [Gymboree employees] follow a strict no-comment policy” with the media, and hung up.

Around the same time, Chris Lu, general manager of Crazy 8, was commuting home with Chung. “She would always disclose things to me, she would blab them to me,” Chung says. In her letter to the trustee, Chung writes that Lu told her that members of the executive leadership team were “paid their severance,” after demanding assurances from the board of directors. The board arranged for a “retention bonus contract” in the amount of the severance pay. “She said I couldn’t tell anyone about it,” Chung recalls. “I said, ‘Why did you tell me that if I cannot say anything?’”

In a brief phone conversation with The Intercept, Lu would only say, “I can’t talk to you. … I’m going to hang up now.”

According to Chung’s trustee letter, members of the executive leadership team who may have received retention bonuses included Lu, MacMillan, Schickedanz, Chief Financial Officer Jon Kimmons, VP of Information Technology David Sondergeld, VP of Logistics Dana Todorovic, VP of Sourcing Patricia Lesser, and VP of Marketing Parnell Eagle. Those in the “next level down” like Chung were left out, even though she had the same VP title as several of the recipients. Chung and Thompson were not formally part of the executive leadership team.

Thompson had also heard about the not-so-secret retention bonuses. “Nobody officially told me, but I heard rumors,” she says. She talked it over with Chung just before the bankruptcy. But when Thompson asked MacMillan about the executive leadership team meeting with the board, MacMillan told her that she couldn’t comment on it.

Both Thompson and Chung were told about the severance termination on the same evening. That day, everyone in the office figured out who was being let go, because human resources had cleared out the layoff victims’ time-off balance from the payroll processing system. “Everyone compared notes, mine’s not cleared out, mine is,” Thompson says. “Everyone zeroed out is going to get let go. Mine was zeroed out at end of Wednesday.”

Thompson was told by phone that she would be terminated without severance. Kahng, who as CEO was also a member of the board, told her that “it wasn’t our decision. Goldman Sachs is running the show now, we couldn’t do anything about it.”

Goldman Sachs was the lead creditor on Gymboree’s remaining loans, which it used for cash flow. The investment bank was the first in line to get paid from the bankruptcy. “It’s like when you get on an airplane — Goldman was group 1,” says Chung.

The next day, staff was packed into a tiny conference room. Chung decided to wear a vintage Sex Pistols T-shirt to the meeting with the words “No Future” scrawled on the front. Schickedanz, the human resources chief, read a prepared statement through tears. Everyone had to turn in their ID badges, laptops, and corporate credit cards, and vacate the building by the end of the day. Employees would get their last paycheck and paid time off, and that was it.

Schickedanz, in a phone call with The Intercept, said, “Oh, I thought you were someone else calling. … I’m going to jump off [the phone],” and hung up.

One employee, Katherine Pocrass, filed a class-action lawsuit against Gymboree, alleging that the company did not provide 60 days’ advance notice of the mass firing, as required under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. Attorneys for that case did not respond to a request for comment.

The WARN Act case is ongoing, and Chung would be eligible to be a member in the class-action, which could yield up to 60 days of back pay. But her severance was for a year.

Chung says she met with 17 different attorneys seeking legal recourse for her full severance. Each of them said that while Gymboree’s actions were unconscionable, they were technically legal; the severance plan entitled the company to terminate at any time. Eugene Pak, a business litigator in the Bay Area, said that the situation struck him as “unethical.” Added Keenley, the ERISA attorney: “I think Mera felt that it was unfair. … I’ve been looking for ways to find that it was not lawful, but I have not found them.”

Ron Tyler, a friend of Chung’s and a law professor at Stanford, provided her with several legal contacts. “I think her devastation comes from the fact that she, after very carefully and persistently creating this extremely successful career, to have it end so dramatically and intentionally by her company,” Tyler says. “And she saw the writing on the wall. Had it not been for that [severance] agreement, she would have left before.” Shortly after the bankruptcy, Chung felt an even deeper sting. One of the lawyers she consulted asked how many employees worked at Gymboree headquarters, and so Chung put the question to Lu. “She was laughing and said, ‘I’ll call you when I land, I’m going to Sundance,’” Chung says. Chung wrote to the trustee that Lu and three other members of the executive leadership team — Tricia Lesser, Shelly Walsh, and Parnell Eagle — had decamped to the Sundance Film Festival, weeks after being given a retention bonus to stay on at Gymboree. Thompson corroborated that Gymboree executives were at Sundance, though she didn’t name names. READ MORE: https://theintercept.com/2019/03/25/gymboree-bankruptcy-severance-scam/

The great Equifax mystery: 17 months later, the stolen data has never been found, and experts are starting to suspect a spy scheme

  • Equifax’s data breach on Sept. 7, 2017, stunned markets and American consumers, but where the data of those 143 million people disappeared to has remained a mystery.
  • CNBC talked to experts, intelligence officials, dark web data “hunters” and Equifax to discover where they expect the data has gone, and what it is being used for.
  • The prevailing theory today is that the data was stolen by a nation-state for spying purposes, not by criminals looking to cash in on stolen identities.

On Sept. 7, 2017, the world heard an alarming announcement from credit ratings giant Equifax: In a brazen cyberattack, somebody had stolen sensitive personal information from more than 140 million people, nearly half the population of the U.S.

It was the consumer data security scandal of the decade. The information included Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, information from credit disputes and other personal details. CEO Richard Smith stepped down under fire. Lawmakers changed credit freeze laws and instilled new regulatory oversight of credit ratings agencies.

Then, something unusual happened. The data disappeared. Completely. CNBC talked to eight experts, including data “hunters” who scour the dark web for stolen information, senior cybersecurity managers, top executives at financial institutions, senior intelligence officials who played a part in the investigation and consultants who helped support it. All of them agreed that a breach happened, and personal information from 143 million people was stolen.

But none of them knows where the data is now. It’s never appeared on any hundreds of underground websites selling stolen information. Security experts haven’t seen the data used in any of the ways they’d expect in a theft like this — not for impersonating victims, not for accessing other websites, nothing.

But as the investigations continue, a consensus is starting to emerge to explain why the data has disappeared from sight. Most experts familiar with the case now believe that the thieves were working for a foreign government and are using the information not for financial gain, but to try to identify and recruit spies.

One data hunter dives in

The missing Equifax data has been a 17-month-long obsession for Jeffrey, a cybersecurity analyst at one of the world’s largest banks. To him, it represents a sort of professional Lost City of Atlantis or Holy Grail.

Jeffrey is not the analyst’s real name. He asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He also asked that his bank remain anonymous, because he’s one of such a narrow pool of a specific type of employee that even the name of his bank could be used to identify him.

Jeffrey is a “hunter” on the bank’s “hunt team,” and his job is searching for data on the dark web or darknet — a set of web sites that can only be accessed with special software that protects the user’s anonymity. The dark web can be used for many purposes, but most prominently serves as the internet’s underground black market, where criminals buy, sell and trade credit card data, personal information and criminal services.

Jeffrey trolls the dark web for stolen personal data that looks like it might be brand new, especially if it looks like it might belong to customers of the bank or its rivals. He is often one of the first to know that another company has been breached, and his team is often among the first to inform the victims that their systems have been breached.

So Jeffrey was surprised when he learned about the Equifax breach at the same time as everybody else, when the company announced it to the world.

Stolen consumer information usually goes up for sale immediately after a company is hacked, he explains. Criminals aim for speed so they can sell the data before a company’s tripwires ever detect it was stolen. The longer they wait, the more likely the victims and the institutions will make changes to render the data useless. This is especially true with credit card numbers, which can quickly be canceled once fraudulent charges start cropping up on them. Or when Social Security numbers — like those stolen in the Equifax breach — start getting flagged for fraud.

READ MORE: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/13/equifax-mystery-where-is-the-data.html

What to Do With Your Money in 2019 According to Financial Advisors

Money mistakes are a dime a dozen. Except, you know, they end up costing us a bit more than that.

Think More Critically About Your Resolutions

To prevent those costly financial blunders, we asked some financial advisors and professionals what clients tend to get wrong—and you should do differently going into 2019.

Don’t make News Year’s Resolutions. They don’t work.

Set your goals now, or in early January (after the holiday). The goals need to be realistic. This is key. If they are too hard or not remotely achievable, most folks give up before they even start. When setting goals, start small, then move up. For example, if you are contributing three percent to your 401(k) plan, increase it to four percent. Then plan six to nine months down the road to increase it to five percent.

Similarly, if your cash reserve fund is only one month’s living expenses, give yourself a period of time, say six months, to [get to] two months’ living expenses.

Small steps that are actually implemented have a much higher chance of staying implemented. Then you can go from there and again, slightly raise the goal.

The other thing people need to do is check in with their goals. This doesn’t mean following every movement in the stock market. This means reviewing your progress. This should be quarterly.

Pay Yourself First

The tumultuous markets sometimes cause people to quit contributing to their retirement plans, when we should do the opposite and continue to defer into our 401(k) or other retirement plans. If you are worried about volatility, you should still contribute, especially if you are many years away from retirement. Markets have historically gone through periods of decline and subsequently recovered.

READ MORE: https://twocents.lifehacker.com/what-to-do-with-your-money-in-2019-according-to-financi-1830992314?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits


WeWork’s Rise: How a Sublet Start-Up Is Taking Over

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 4.30.28 AMCritics have derided WeWork as overvalued and vulnerable to the next downturn. But the company holds so many leases in so many cities, it might hold more power than its landlords.

Real estate titans have long scoffed at WeWork, which in eight short years has managed to attain a $20 billion valuation by selling short-term leases for shared office space with a mixture of stylish design and free-flowing alcohol.

Derided by some as a real estate company masquerading as a technology company, it has been called everything from a “$20 billion house of cards” to a “Ponzi scheme.”

The naysayers argue that WeWork’s business model looks brilliant only in a rising economy that has allowed it to lock in long-term leases and then re-rent that space to other businesses at a premium. The enormous valuation it has obtained is higher than that of Boston Properties and Vornado, two of the country’s biggest office-space landlords — companies that actually own the kind of space that WeWork usually rents.

Now, with interest rates creeping higher, residential real estate prices flattening and fears of an economic slowdown coming, real estate insiders are gleeful at the notion that a downturn could be an existential threat for the company.

But a funny thing happened as WeWork has scaled up all over the globe: It may have become too big to fail.

WeWork has gobbled up leases for so much space in so many cities, there’s a compelling case to be made that its landlords wouldn’t be able to afford for it to go under.

Because of WeWork’s size, “they have more power in a down market,” said Thomas J. Barrack Jr., the longtime real estate investor and founder of Colony Capital.

The company is scheduled to release third-quarter financial results on Tuesday. A WeWork spokesman, citing the coming report, declined to comment.

The conventional wisdom is that when the economy turns south, WeWork’s customers — many of which are start-ups and may be the most vulnerable — will simply walk away. The flexibility of WeWork’s short-term leases is part of its appeal, after all.

READ MORE: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/business/dealbook/wework-office-space-real-estate.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage

Uber, Lyft and the Urgency of Saving Money on Ambulances

‘Don’t reflexively call an ambulance,’ a Harvard researcher says. In many cases, a cheaper way makes sense.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 5.11.14 AM

An ambulance ride of just a few miles can cost thousands of dollars, and a lot of it may not be covered by insurance. With ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft far cheaper and now available within minutes in many areas, would using one instead be a good idea?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer in many cases is yes.

The high cost of an ambulance isn’t really for the ride. It comes with emergency medical staff and equipment, and those can be very important, of course, even lifesaving.

But they are not things you always need, although you (and your insurer) pay for them with every trip.

“Don’t reflexively call an ambulance,” said Anupam Jena, a physician and researcher with the Harvard Medical School. “Ambulances are for emergencies. If you’re not having one, it’s reasonable to consider another form of transportation.”

READ MORE: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/01/upshot/uber-lyft-and-the-urgency-of-saving-money-on-ambulances.html

Why Is College in America So Expensive?

The outrageous price of a U.S. degree is unique in the world.

college ripoffBefore the automobile, before the Statue of Liberty, before the vast majority of contemporary colleges existed, the rising cost of higher education was shocking the American conscience: “Gentlemen have to pay for their sons in one year more than they spent themselves in the whole four years of their course,” The New York Times lamented in 1875.

Decadence was to blame, the writer argued: fancy student apartments, expensive meals, and “the mania for athletic sports.”

Today, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report, released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year—nearly twice as much as the average developed country. “The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, and he does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

Only one country spends more per student, and that country is Luxembourg—where tuition is nevertheless free for students, thanks to government outlays. In fact, a third of developed countries offer college free of charge to their citizens. (And another third keep tuition very cheap—less than $2,400 a year.) The farther away you get from the United States, the more baffling it looks.

This back-to-school season, The Atlantic is investigating a classic American mystery: Why does college cost so much? And is it worth it?

At first, like the 19th-century writer of yore, I wanted to blame the curdled indulgences of campus life: fancy dormitories, climbing walls, lazy rivers, dining halls with open-fire-pit grills. And most of all—college sports. Certainly sports deserved blame.

On first glance, the new international data provide some support for this narrative. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for spending on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation, a category of spending that the OECD lumps together under “ancillary services.” All in all, American taxpayers and families spend about $3,370 on these services per student—more than three times the average for the developed world. One reason for this difference is that American college students are far more likely to live away from home. And living away from home is expensive, with or without a lazy river. Experts say that campuses in Canada and Europe tend to have fewer dormitories and dining halls than campuses in the U.S. “The bundle of services that an American university provides and what a French university provides are very different,” says David Feldman, an economist focused on education at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Reasonable people can argue about whether American universities should have these kind of services, but the fact that we do does not mark American universities as inherently inefficient. It marks them as different.” READ MORE:https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/09/why-is-college-so-expensive-in-america/569884/

Hidden From View: The Astonishingly High Administrative Costs of U.S. Health Care

It takes only a glance at a hospital bill or at the myriad choices you may have for health care coverage to get a sense of the bewildering complexity of health care financing in the United States. That complexity doesn’t just exact a cognitive cost. It also comes with administrative costs that are largely hidden from view but that we all pay.

Because they’re not directly related to patient care, we rarely think about administrative costs. They’re high.

A widely cited study published in The New England Journal of Medicine used data from 1999 to estimate that about 30 percent of American health care expenditures were the result of administration, about twice what it is in Canada. If the figures hold today, they mean that out of the average of about $19,000 that U.S. workers and their employers pay for family coverage each year, $5,700 goes toward administrative costs.

Such costs aren’t all bad. Some are tied up in things we may want, such as creating a quality improvement program. Others are for things we may dislike — for example, figuring out which of our claims to accept or reject or sending us bills. Others are just necessary, like processing payments; hiring and managing doctors and other employees; or maintaining information systems.

That New England Journal of Medicine study is still the only one on administrative costs that encompasses the entire health system. Many other more recent studies examine important portions of it, however. The story remains the same: Like the overall cost of the U.S. health system, its administrative cost alone is No. 1 in the world.

hospital

Using data from 2010 and 2011, one study, published in Health Affairs, compared hospital administrative costs in the United States with those in seven other places: Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

At just over 25 percent of total spending on hospital care (or 1.4 percent of total United States economic output), American hospital administrative costs exceed those of all the other places. The Netherlands was second in hospital administrative costs: almost 20 percent of hospital spending and 0.8 percent of that country’s G.D.P.

At the low end were Canada and Scotland, which both spend about 12 percent of hospital expenditures on administration, or about half a percent of G.D.P.

Hospitals are not the only source of high administrative spending in the United States. Physician practices also devote a large proportion of revenue to administration. By one estimate, for every 10 physicians providing care, almost seven additional people are engaged in billing-related activities.

It is no surprise then that a majority of American doctors say that generating bills and collecting payments is a major problem. Canadian practices spend only 27 percent of what U.S. ones do on dealing with payers like Medicare or private insurers.

Another study in Health Affairs surveyed physicians and physician practice administrators about billing tasks. It found that doctors spend about three hours per week dealing with billing-related matters. For each doctor, a further 19 hours per week are spent by medical support workers. And 36 hours per week of administrators’ time is consumed in this way. Added together, this time costs an additional $68,000 per year per physician (in 2006). Because these are administrative costs, that’s above and beyond the cost associated with direct provision of medical care.

In JAMA, scholars from Harvard and Duke examined the billing-related costs in an academic medical center. Their study essentially followed bills through the system to see how much time different types of medical workers spent in generating and processing them.

At the low end, such activities accounted for only 3 percent of revenue for surgical procedures, perhaps because surgery is itself so expensive. At the high end, 25 percent of emergency department visit revenue went toward billing costs. Primary care visits were in the middle, with billing functions accounting for 15 percent of revenue, or about $100,000 per year per primary care provider.

“The extraordinary costs we see are not because of administrative slack or because health care leaders don’t try to economize,” said Kevin Schulman, a co-author of the study and a professor of medicine at Duke. “The high administrative costs are functions of the system’s complexity.”

Costs related to billing appear to be growing. A literature review by Elsa Pearson, a policy analyst with the Boston University School of Public Health, found that in 2009 they accounted for about 14 percent of total health expenditures. By 2012, the figure was closer to 17 percent.

One obvious source of complexity of the American health system is its multiplicity of payers. A typical hospital has to contend not just with several public health programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, but also with many private insurers, each with its own set of procedures and forms (whether electronic or paper) for billing and collecting payment. By one estimate, 80 percent of the billing-related costs in the United States are because of contending with this added complexity.

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