John Rowe, M.D., Aetna's chairman and chief executive, received $18.2 million last year in compensation, according to a recent filing with Securities and Exchange Commission.
Rowe was paid $10.6 million in salary, bonuses and other compensation, and received $7.6 million by exercising stock options in 2003, according to Monday's proxy filing.
He also was also granted 350,000 new stock options that could be valued at $5.6 million, according to the proxy filing for Aetna's annual shareholders meeting April 30.
Aetna President Ronald Williams received a $9.1 million pay package in 2003 and 270,000 stock options that could be worth $4.3 million.
David Kelso, the company's top strategist who left Sept. 30, received $13.7 million in pay and value from stock options.
Aetna justified the compensation packages by citing a "significant financial turnaround since 2001," spokesman Fred Laberge said. Aetna moved from a $266 million loss in 2001 to a $966.8 million profit in 2003.
In addition, Aetna's stock outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500 index, and nearly matched an index of health insurers on cumulative total return since the company's spinoff in December 2000.
Aetna's recovery, Laberge said, "was clearly due to the strong leadership of our high-performing executives."
The Hartford-based insurer settled litigation with doctors and increased enrollment after shedding millions of members. Aetna also has laid off thousands of employees and cut benefits for workers and retirees. Expense-cutting is continuing this year.
A shareholder proposal that Aetna stockholders will consider at the annual meeting asks the board to replace the pay system for senior executives with a plan that would limit compensation and severance.