Carolinas HealthCare’s planes used for business, personal trips

aalexander@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

CHS planes

Two Beechcraft King Air 200 airplanes in Carolinas HealthCare's fleet. System CEO Michael Tarwater, a licensed pilot, sometimes flies one of those planes for business and personal trips.

ROBERT LAHSER — rlahser@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Carolinas HealthCare System responds:

    CEO Michael Tarwater declined to be interviewed for this story. But the system provided written answers, along with this statement:

    As the only hospital-based, accredited fixed-wing air ambulance service based in the Carolinas, MedCenter Air’s elite team serves a vital role in transporting critically ill and injured patients and operates 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and 365 days per year. Not only do patients of Carolinas HealthCare System benefit from this service, but so do the patients of more than 50 other organizations who contract with MedCenter Air for air ambulance charter services.

    All personal use of MedCenter Air fixed-wing aircraft follows IRS guidelines and Carolinas HealthCare System policies. Of the 4,064 flights by MedCenter Air’s fixed-wing aircraft between 2008 and 2012, the vast majority involved the transport of critically injured or sick patients. Only 29 of these flights, or less than one percent, involved personal travel by Carolinas HealthCare System’s CEO.

    Furthermore, Carolinas HealthCare System does not respond to the hearsay comments provided to us by the Observer from certain unnamed sources. We question the Observer’s use of any sources without fully investigating possible motives behind their participation in a story.

Michael Tarwater, the CEO of one of the nation’s largest hospital chains, enjoys a rarely discussed perk: the freedom to fly planes owned by the nonprofit system for business and pleasure.

Flight logs provided by Carolinas HealthCare System show Tarwater took at least 29 personal flights on the system’s planes from 2008 to 2012. During that time, he also has been on board 101 flights that the system said were for business.

Tarwater’s personal flights are counted as part of his compensation, which totaled $4.8 million in 2012, according to the hospital system.

Widely recognized for guiding Mecklenburg County’s largest employer through a period of remarkable growth, Tarwater has also honed another skill: He’s an accomplished pilot.

Tarwater served as co-pilot on more than half of the Carolinas HealthCare flights he was aboard during the five years ending in 2012, system records show. He holds an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, the highest license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The hospital system owns five planes and three helicopters, which are used mainly for transporting patients and organs.

Tarwater declined to be interviewed, but he told the Observer that since 2008 he has reported an average of $2,475 per year as income attributable to his personal flights. The personal travel was reported in accordance with IRS guidelines, officials said.

But IRS rules allow Tarwater to value those flights at amounts far lower than the cost of operating the planes. Had he chartered the flights from a private company, he would have paid roughly $20,000 a year, on average, The Observer found.

A number of Tarwater’s personal trips were to Dothan, Ala., where his daughter and grandchildren live. Others were to Gulf Shores, Ala., near Pensacola, Fla., where his father lives. In one typical case, Tarwater flew from Charlotte to Dothan on Sept. 28, 2012, and returned two days later. SkySouth, a charter company based in Burlington, would have charged about $4,900 for the trip, the company’s general manager said.

Calls to five other systems suggest the practice of using hospital planes for personal travel isn’t common. A number of systems – including Novant Health, Duke University Hospitals, UNC Hospitals and the Mayo Clinic – say they do not let executives use aircraft for personal flights.

‘We are all paying’

Some experts believe the practice is rare – and questionable. “It seems inappropriate for them to use (planes) for personal purposes, given that they are being supported via tax exemption,” said Gerard Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and Management. “So we are all paying for the vacation the CEO is taking.”

Carolinas HealthCare hospitals in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Lincoln counties get tax exemptions worth more than $100 million a year, the Observer estimated. CHS, the state’s largest hospital system, owns more than $1 billion in tax-exempt property and pays no corporate income taxes or sales taxes.

The system, which brings in about $7 billion in annual revenue, says it earns its tax exemptions by providing extensive benefits to the community, including more than $280 million last year in free and discounted care for uninsured patients who can’t afford to pay their bills.

Tarwater’s personal trips accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the flights taken by CHS planes, the system said. All personal use of the system’s airplanes “follows IRS guidelines and Carolinas HealthCare System policies,” the system said in a written statement.

With CEO approval, other senior CHS executives are also allowed to use the planes for personal travel, the system said. CHS did not identify other executives who have done that. Such flights are “very rare” and are reported as income in keeping with IRS guidelines, said system spokeswoman Amy Murphy.

The vast majority of Carolinas HealthCare’s business travel is booked on commercial airlines, the system said. But from 2008 to 2012, executives boarded about 9 percent of CHS flights.

The system said it considers many factors when deciding whether to use its planes for business trips: “short time frames to coordinate and book travel, inadequate commercial service at destinations, long drive times, time that would be spent waiting for departures and connections of commercial aircraft, and an ability to work more efficiently.”

A frequent flier, co-pilot

Tarwater has frequently co-piloted several Carolinas HealthCare planes, including a twin-engine business jet called a Cessna Citation. According to the FAA, he has a “type rating” that authorizes him to serve as the pilot-in-command in a Citation. But he has done much of his recent flying on the system’s six-seat Beechcraft Baron, a twin-engine piston plane that Carolinas HealthCare acquired in 2011 for $700,000.

Typically, the plane is used about six days each month, data obtained by the Observer shows. The other planes in the CHS fleet are used far more frequently. Unlike the other CHS aircraft, the Baron generates no revenue because it’s not chartered and not used to transport patients.

Of the 93 trips that CHS reported for the Baron through the end of 2012, Tarwater served as a co-pilot on 29 of them – or about 31 percent. Nineteen of those flights were personal trips, according to Carolinas HealthCare data.

One former airplane mechanic said he saw golf clubs being loaded on the plane about a half-dozen times. Pilots, he recalled, sometimes said, “I’m ferrying the golfers today.”

Murphy, the CHS spokeswoman, noted that the Baron is smaller than the system’s other four planes, and less expensive to operate. She said the system bought the plane as an economical way to take executives on shorter business trips – and to areas served by small airports that aren’t designed for larger planes.

‘All taxpayers are paying’

To be sure, personal trips on company planes are much more common in parts of the for-profit world. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan received $477,000 worth of personal use of corporate aircraft in 2012, for example. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. chief executive Frank Harrison III received more than $133,000 of personal aircraft use last year.

But experts say it’s extremely rare for nonprofit leaders to take personal flights on planes owned by their organizations. Taxpayers are essentially subsidizing such flights, experts say, because they must pay higher taxes to make up for what nonprofits don’t pay. “I think it’s a travesty, and it’s a waste of their tax-exempt status,” said Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group that studies nonprofits. “All taxpayers are paying for this.”

Pablo Eisenberg, another nonprofit expert, called it an “outrage.” “That is not a common practice (in the nonprofit world), and it shouldn’t be allowed. Period,” he said.

Novant Health, which runs the three Presbyterian hospitals in Mecklenburg County, owns a twin-engine turboprop that senior leaders use for business trips around the system’s four-state coverage area. But “personal use for recreational or entertainment purposes is not allowed” on the plane, Novant said in a written response to questions.

UNC Hospitals leases two helicopters for patient transports and also buys access to planes owned by another organization. But the system does not allow its officials to use the aircraft for personal flights, spokesperson Karen McCall said. Duke Medicine owns two helicopters, but no planes. That system uses the helicopters for medical purposes, but prohibits personal flights.

An ethical question

Tarwater obtained his Airline Transport Pilot certificate in 2005, according to the FAA. By then, he had already logged nearly 1,600 hours of flight time. Among his accomplishments: piloting a transatlantic crossing from Nottingham, England, to North Carolina.

Piloting the system’s planes helps Tarwater fulfill requirements aimed at keeping flight skills sharp. Pilots who want to carry passengers or navigate using electronic instruments, for instance, have to show recent flight experience.

Tarwater does not schedule any of his flights on Carolinas HealthCare planes for the purposes of meeting such requirements, the system said.

Some charity experts question whether nonprofit leaders should be allowed to use planes owned by their organizations to pursue their love of flying. Said Eisenberg: “I think it’s ethically to be criticized.”

Staff writers Karen Garloch and Gavin Off and researcher Maria David contributed.

Alexander: 704-358-5060

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