With all of the recent scrutiny of Mitt Romney’s tax returns, here’s something you might not know: non-profit hospitals are exempt from paying any federal income taxes. The rationale behind this is that these hospitals deserve a break because they provide significant benefits to their communities. This community benefit can be thought of as consisting of the sum total of a number of things like the amount of uncompensated care the hospital provides, the number of lives it saves, the number of jobs it provides, and the impact it has on residents’ quality of life. If a hospital is creating jobs, restoring people’s health, saving people’s lives, and providing a health care safety net for the community, then perhaps it shouldn’t have to pay federal taxes. Similar to the case for making employer-based health insurance tax-free, this is a way for the federal government to effectively subsidize something that it considers to be beneficial to the public.
Hospitals certainly enjoy their tax exemption, but the bigger question is: Do they deserve it? For more than 40 years, the rhetoric of community benefit has been bandied about without actually defining what it includes, establishing criteria for the amount of community benefit that must be provided to merit non-profit status, or evaluating the extent to which non-profit hospitals are doing so. What has been done is research showing that more often than not, non-profit hospitals behave a lot like for-profit hospitals. And who can blame them? After all, why not take the tax break with one hand and attempt to maximize profits with the other hand? In fact, the former bolsters efforts at the latter.
Since 2009, however, the IRS has required non-profit hospitals to document the dollar amount of the community benefits they provide. In the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Karen Principe and colleagues consider what effect health reform may have on the provision of community benefit. For example, as more Americans are covered by insurance, the amount of uncompensated care a hospital provides can be expected to decrease. The authors report that some have called for an end to non-profit status for hospitals. One way to think about this is that the federal government would be shifting its subsidy from the hospitals to the individuals as it helped them to purchase insurance. The authors disagree, however. They argue that hospitals will still need to provide uncompensated care for individuals who move in and out of coverage, and that coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act will strengthen the financial position of hospitals, leading hospitals to allocate community benefits differently. That is, they will provide less uncompensated care, but more of the “other” stuff that constitutes community benefit.
I like their optimism, but without strong enforcement to hold non-profit hospitals accountable, I think hospitals are about to win big: They’ll keep their tax-exempt status, provide even less uncompensated care, see their revenues increase, and laugh all the way to the bank. And who can blame them? After all, they’ve no incentive to do otherwise.