Establishing a Baseline: Community Benefit Spending by Not-for-Profit Hospitals Prior to Implementation of the Affordable Care Act

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Abstract

Context:

Community Benefit spending by not-for-profit hospitals has served as a critical, formalized part of the nation's safety net for almost 50 years. This has occurred mostly through charity care. This article examines how not-for-profit hospitals spent Community Benefit dollars prior to full implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Methods:

Using data from 2009 to 2012 hospital tax and other governmental filings, we constructed national, hospital-referral-region, and facility-level estimates of Community Benefit spending. Data were collected in 2015 and analyzed in 2015 and 2016. Data were matched at the facility level for a non-profit hospital's IRS tax filings (Form 990, Schedule H) and CMS Hospital Cost Report Information System and Provider of Service data sets.

Results:

During 2009, hospitals spent about 8% of total operating expenses on Community Benefit. This increased to between 8.3% and 8.5% in 2012. The majority of spending (>80%) went toward charity care, unreimbursed Medicaid, and subsidized health services, with approximately 6% going toward both community health improvement and health professionals' education. By 2012, national spending on Community Benefit likely exceeded $60 billion. The largest hospital systems spent the vast majority of the nation's Community Benefit; the top 25% of systems spent more than 80 cents of every Community Benefit dollar.

Discussion:

Community Benefit spending has remained relatively steady as a proportion of total operating expenses and so has increased over time—although charity care remains the major focus of Community Benefit spending overall.

Implications:

More than $60 billion was spent on Community Benefit prior to implementation of the ACA. New reporting and spending requirements from the IRS, alongside changes by the ACA, are changing incentives for hospitals in how they spend Community Benefit dollars. In the short term, and especially the long term, hospital systems would do well to partner with public health, other social services, and even competing hospitals to invest in population-based activities. The mandated community health needs assessment process is a logical home for these sorts of collaborations. Relatively modest investments can improve the baseline level of health in their communities and make it easier to improve population health. Aside from a population health justification for a partnership model, a business case is necessary for widespread adoption of this approach. Because of their authorities, responsibilities, and centuries of expertise in community health, public health agencies are in a position to help hospitals form concrete, sustainable collaborations for the improvement of population health.

Conclusion:

The ACA will likely change the delivery of uncompensated and charity care in the United States in the years to come. How hospitals choose to spend those dollars may be influenced greatly by the financial and political environments, as well as the strength of community partnerships.

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