Nambi Ndugga is a Policy Analyst with Boston University’s School of Public Health. She tweets at @joerianatalie. Research for this piece was supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
What are non-profit hospitals and what is the community benefit standard?
Recently, several news outlets including ProPublica, Kaiser Health News, and Wall Street Journal have published stories on non-profit hospitals’ medical debt collection practices and the effects on low income patients. These news stories prompted me to take a closer look at non-profit hospitals, their tax-exempt status, the community benefits they must fulfill to qualify for it, and the impact on care.
This is the first piece of two posts that consider the requirements that non-profit hospitals need to fulfill to qualify for their tax-exempt status and the impact of these standards on non-profit hospitals and the communities they seek to serve.
Has the definition of a non-profit hospital evolved over time?
Short answer: yes.
To date, non-profit hospitals have significantly benefitted from their tax-exempt status, saving $24.6 billion in taxes in 2011. Originally, hospitals were granted tax-exempt status because of affiliations with religious institutions and for serving a charitable purpose. It wasn’t necessarily related to medical care. However, in 1956, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) implemented the charity care standard requiring hospitals to offer uncompensated care to patients unable to pay in order to qualify as a charitable organization under Internal Revenue Code 501c3.
Many believed charity care would no longer be necessary after the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Policymakers assumed the two programs would ensure insurance coverage for most people, obviating the need for a charity care standard. This wasn’t the case, and over the next decade, two events led to the elimination of the charity care standard and the introduction of its successor, the community benefit standard, in 1969.
First, the House of Representatives released a report citing concerns about the execution of the charity care standard and its effectiveness. Second, a hospital that did not provide free or discounted health care mounted a legal challenge. The hospital asserted that, because it had an emergency room open to all community members, it was already providing a charitable service and should qualify for non-profit, or 501c3, status. The courts agreed with the hospital, stating that the provision of an open-access emergency room promoted the health of the community. This fulfilled a charitable purpose according to its legal definition. Ultimately, the IRS agreed with the court’s decision and deemed it necessary to change the charity care standard to accommodate this decision.
Consequently, the IRS issued Ruling 69-545, introducing the community benefit standard. From its implementation and onwards instead of being judged solely on the provision of free or discounted care, a hospital’s 501c3 status would be based on whether it “promoted the health of a broad class of individuals in the community,” including but not limited to just providing free or discounted care.
In 2010, additional requirements were included in the community benefit standard. Non-profit hospitals are now required to perform a community health needs assessment every three years and have both an accessible Financial Assistance Policy and Emergency Medical Care Policy (a charge limit for people who qualify for financial assistance and a billings) and a collections system that determines if individuals are eligible for financial assistance prior to engaging in extraordinary collection actions (applies to all emergency and medically necessary care).
What does non-profit status mean for hospitals?
Short answer: tax-exempt with charity donations required.
Most hospitals in the United States are recognized as charitable organizations, with 78 percent qualifying for 501c3 status. This means they are exempt from most taxes and benefit from tax-deductible charity donations and tax-exempt bond financing but they must meet general Internal Revenue Code requirements, including the community benefit standard aimed at improving the health of the surrounding community.
A variety of activities qualify as community benefits. Some examples are charity care, unreimbursed costs through means-tested programs (Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, etc.), unreimbursed health professions education, unfunded research, and cash and in-kind contributions for community benefits. Hospitals must submit IRS Form 990 Schedule H annually to demonstrate their community benefit expenditures and maintain their 501c3 designations.
Are non-profit hospitals behaving like their for-profit counterparts?
Short answer: often times, yes.
Seven of the ten most profitable hospitals in the country are non-profits. Many of these exhibit for-profit characteristics such as being part of a larger hospital system, being located in urban areas, and not having a teaching program.
But these aren’t the only features of non-profit hospitals that resemble for-profits. A study conducted by the Kellogg School of Management found that non-profits regularly behaved like for-profits after financial shocks. In response to financial crises, non-profits cut back on unprofitable services to offset losses instead of increasing prices. This is not what we expect; the study authors argue that we should expect them to do the latter — forgoing financial gain by starting with lower prices with room to increase in times of financial stress. That they don’t suggests that non-profits are already maximizing profits, similar to for-profit hospitals.
While it is unusual for non-profit hospitals to experience large financial profits, it does happen. The question is whether these gains are then reinvested into the hospital’s charity care and community health and wellbeing initiatives.
How much of a non-profit hospital’s revenue goes back into care and its community?
Short answer: some.
Herring, et al. found that, on average, 7.6 percent of non-profit hospitals’ 2012 total expenses were community benefit expenditures, 3 percent were unreimbursed Medicaid costs, and about 2 percent were charity care. (These findings are consistent with past studies.)
In some cases, non-profit hospitals receive tax benefits that far outweigh their community benefit investments. For example, in fiscal year 2011-2012, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center made approximately $1 billion in profits, spent less than $20 million on charity care, and received $200 million in tax benefits. Cases like these have increased public scrutiny on hospitals’ non-profit status and whether current 501c3 requirements go far enough to ensure that hospitals provide sufficient charity care and community benefits.
Non-profit hospitals maintain their tax exempt status through the fulfillment of the community benefits standard. In the next piece we will look at the impact of these standards on the hospitals and the communities they serve.