Grassley and Baucus Seek to Further Define the Difference Between Charity Care and Bad Debt for Nonprofit Hospitals. As a Matter of Collections Timing?

Filed in Hospitals by on May 23, 2009 3 Comments

According to Inside ARM, an accounts receivable management online magazine, the Senate Finance Committee is presently contemplating imposing strictures upon nonprofit hospitals regarding when those hospitals may outsource the collection of unpaid bills and, presumably, the definition of “bad debt” as it relates to “community benefit.” Inside ARM states that “The proposal is meant to provide more free care and make not-for-profit hospitals more accountable for their tax-exempt status.”

Details of the initiative are said to be scant at this point, but according to Inside ARM, “Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s top ranking Republican, propose requiring not-for-profit hospitals to follow certain procedures before initiating collection actions against patients.” Sen. Grassley has sought to require nonprofit hospitals to justify their tax exemptions since 2005, the year in which he sent what pretty much amounts to interrogatories to the nation’s leading nonprofit hospitals regarding billing practices and questionable characterizations of “community benefit.”

Although without detail, the new timing distinction for collections seems to be based upon the amount owed being designated as “bad debt,” or that which is essentially deemed “uncollectable.” The prospective prohibition would seem to  require the amount owed to be deemed “uncollectable” or “bad debt” before it can be placed with a collection agency. A prospect the nation’s collectors, who generally work on commission, do not relish. But one hopes this provision is but one small piece of further defining “community benefit” in terms of actual charitable care.

Many nonprofit hospitals have characterized their uncollected receivables as a fulfillment of the ill-defined requirement that they offer a “community benefit” in exchange for the tax exemption they receive under 501(c)(3). Senator Grassley has said that “Neither the IRS nor Congress has done a very good job when it comes to establishing the criteria for enjoying this tax status since the IRS scrapped charity care for its community benefit standard in 1969″ (New York Times, 2/13/09).”

He has a point. But unless the prospective timing provision for outsourcing only “bad debt” is coupled with a prohibition upon characterizing mere “uncollected receivables” and  payor “shortfalls” as “community benefit,” it is hard to see what effect this bad debt collections distinction will have–besides the expansion of in house hospital collection  departments. One hopes that the pointed questions Senator Grassley asked of the nation’s leading nonprofit hospitals in ’05 will play a substantial role in the Senate effort to reform and redefine the obligations of tax exempt nonprofit hospitals now. I believe Mr. Grassley would well agree that a mere shift in the locus of collection activities will not constitute reform worth the name.

Perhaps some background is in order. As we posted here a little while back in “The IRS, Nonprofit Hospitals, and the Meaning of “Community Benefit,” the IRS recently published the results of a two year study of nonprofit hospitals functioning under 501(c)(3), a portion of the Internal Revenue Code which garners tax exemptions for those entities it harbors. For those of you who have not yet read our post on the topic, I’ve excerpted it here below (if you have already read the piece, you can scroll down to the paragraph before Grassley’s numbered questions for the concusion to this post). The excerpted post describes how uncompensated care, bad debt and “shortfalls” in payments from Medicare and even Private Insurers can, and often are, characterized as somehow providing a “community benefit” which justifies a tax exemption for nonprofit hospitals:

Under the strictures of 501(c)(3) nonprofits are confined to paying executives “reasonable compensation” and supplying “community benefit.” Unfortunately, neither of these terms are particularly well defined. In the study’s executive summary, the IRS puts it so:

The community benefit standard is the legal standard for determining whether a nonprofit hospital is exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

“Observations. Both the community benefit and reasonable compensation standards have proved difficult for the IRS to administer. Both involve application of imprecise legal standards to complex, varied and evolving fact patterns.”

These limitations may be seen in the characterizations of “community benefit” available to the hospitals in the study. Bad debt and Medicare payment shortfalls may be construed as  “community benefit.” As the debt, the credit injury, and the collection calls all inure to the community member who received treatment but could not pay, one might question if the “community benefit” involved in a failure of collection practices might be distinguishable from the “community benefit” involved in intentional charitable care. In addition, there simply is no set criteria to determine the appropriate amounts to be charged as “community benefit.” The IRS study poses the following under the heading of

Limitations: …although the IRS designated the general categories of activities that could be reported as community benefit for purposes of the study, determining what was treated as community benefit (for example, bad debt or Medicare shortfalls) and how to measure it (cost versus charges) was largely within the respondents’ discretion.

Which is to say that those being monitored (nonprofit hospitals) to gauge the amount of money spent– to justify their tax exempt  status– were free to characterize their contributions in the manner they thought best.

Medicare shortfalls: So… if a non-profit hospital has a fee schedule rate of $100 for a procedure, and Medicare has a reimburse rate of $80 for that procedure, if a “charge” rate of measurement is used then there has been a $20 “community benefit” if the federally designated tax exempt nonprofit hospital accepts as payment the federally designated and predetermined Medicare reimbursement amount. Significantly, 19% of the hospitals also claimed “shortfalls” in payment from private insurers as uncompensated care/community benefit (See Chart: “Figure 82,” p. 105, full report).

Cost vs. Charge: So… if a procedure has a cost to the hospital of $80 and a fee schedule [or “chargemaster”] rate of $100, and the recipient of the procedure does not pay and the hospital categorizes the non-payment as “bad debt,” it has the ability to count as “community benefit” not only the cost of its unintended largesse, but also the amount it had expected as profit.

Perhaps even more telling than this latitude in characterization are the amounts actually submitted to the IRS as community benefit. Here are a few of the findings:

  • The average and median percentages of total revenues reported as spent on community benefit expenditures were 9% and 6%, respectively.
  • Uncompensated care accounted for 56% of aggregate community benefit expenditures reported by the hospitals in the study.
  • Uncompensated care was the largest reported community benefit expenditure for each of the study’s demographics, other than for a group of 15 hospitals reporting large medical research expenditures (93% of all research expenditures reported by the study’s respondents).
  • Further, the group of 15 hospitals reporting large medical research expenditures materially impacted the overall numbers in this area. For example, when the research group is removed, the percentage of total community benefit expenditures reported as spent on uncompensated care increases from56% to 71%, and that spent on medical research decreases from 15% to 1%.
  • Uncompensated care and community benefit expenditures were concentrated in certain hospitals and unevenly distributed. For example,9% of the hospitals reported 60% of the aggregate community benefit expenditures of the overall group; 14% of the hospitals reported 63% of the aggregate uncompensated care expenditures.

So… if we were to take the 15 research hospitals out of the mix, 73% of the “community benefit” for the remaining 474 hospitals was in the form of uncompensated care–Medicare (and private insurance) shortfalls and bad debt inclusive.

In addition, of the substantial uncompensated care component, hospitals contributions were disparate: 14% of the hospitals reported 63% of the total–which is to say that roughly 68 hospitals out of the 489 accounted for 63%, while the other roughly 421 hospitals chipped in a somewhat less magnanimous 37% of the total. This despite the considerable latitude in characterization.

End Excerpt.

Very importantly, and to his credit, Senator Grassley seems to be well acquainted with these “characterizations” as evidenced by his rather scathing and comprehensive  46 question interrogatory letter mentioned above, and his response in the NY Times on 2/13/09 after the IRS study was published acknowledging that “Neither the IRS nor Congress has done a very good job…”

In his 2005 nonprofit hospital query, under “Payments/Charges/Debt Collection/Tax-Exempt Status and Other Issues” (p. 4-8), Grassley asked the following about billing and accounting practices:

4. If government programs pay for hospital services for its enrollees without regard to the chargemaster rate and commercial insurance carriers throughout the country likewise pay not based on the chargemaster rate, please explain why the uninsured continue to be charged the chargemaster rate?

5. Please explain what is the economic benefit to your hospital of charging uninsureds the high chargemaster rate when uninsured people generally have less of an ability to pay hospital charges and do in fact generally pay only a fraction of what has been charged? Does this benefit justify your action particularly in light of your not-for-profit tax-exempt status?

9. It has been suggested that one of the reasons that a hospital may have maintained these high chargemaster rates is that it allows the hospital to obtain more in the way of Medicare outlier payments thus further costing the government additional money for the care of the uninsured. Please explain why your hospital, as a tax-exempt not-for-profit hospital, feels that this is appropriate or inappropriate. What was the growth rate in your Medicare outlier payments from 1998 to 2002?

It seems almost like the “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price” on consumer goods. Like when Macy’s holds a 60% off sale with fine print in the ad to satisfy the consumer fraud stautues which reads: “Original price may not have resulted in actual sales.” As though Macy’s then characterized the 60% off as a “community benefit”– for tax purposes. But no one pays Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price. And almost no one seems to pay the “list price” for healthcare–except it seems the uninsured who don’t pay.

One hopes that the Senate Finance Committee is now in the midst of providing legislative answers and definitions beyond merely categorizing hospital debt for the purpose of collections. In reading Grassley’s work, it hard to believe they’re not.

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