Citing lax enforcement, senators ramp up scrutiny of nonprofit hospitals' tax exemptions

A bipartisan quartet of influential senators is tapping tax regulators within the U.S. Treasury for detailed information on nonprofit hospitals’ reported charity care and community investments, the latest in legislators’ increasing scrutiny of tax-exempt hospitals’ business practices.

In a pair of letters (PDF) sent Monday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, Bill Cassidy, M.D., R-Louisiana, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote they “are alarmed by reports that despite their tax-exempt status, certain nonprofit hospitals may be taking advantage of this overly broad definition of ‘community benefit’ and engaging in practices that are not in the best interest of the patient.”

The missives referenced a bevy of news reports as well as an investigation conducted by Grassley’s office detailing tax-exempt hospitals and health systems’ aggressive debt collection practices.

They also outlined studies from academic and policy groups highlighting that the tax-exempt status of the nation's nonprofit hospitals collectively was worth about $28 billion in 2020 and how this tally paled in comparison to the charity care most of those hospitals had provided during that same period.  

Such studies have been quickly contested by the hospital lobby, which highlights that charity care is just one component of the broader activities that constitute a nonprofit hospital’s community benefit spending.

However, that ambiguity was squarely in the crosshairs of the legislators who said the long-standing community benefit standard “is arguably insufficient in its current form to guarantee protection and services to the communities hosting these hospitals.”

They cited a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office that found oversight of nonprofit hospitals’ tax exemptions was “challenging” due to the vague definition of community benefit.

Though the IRS implemented several of the office’s recommendations from the report, “more is required to ensure nonprofit hospitals’ community benefit information is standardized, consistent and easily identifiable.” Included here could be additional updates to Form 990’s Schedule H, where nonprofits detail their community benefits and related activities.

To get a better handle on the agencies’ current oversight, the legislators requested from the IRS and the Treasury’s Tax Exempt & Government Entities Division a laundry list of information related to nonprofits’ tax filings from the last several years, including “a list of the most commonly reported community benefit activities that qualified a nonprofit hospital for tax exemptions in FY2021 and FY2022.”

They also sought lists of the nonprofit hospitals that were flagged, penalized or had their tax-exempt status revoked for violating community benefit standard requirements.

In another letter to the Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, they asked the auditor to update their upcoming reviews to evaluate existing standards for financial assistance policy and other “practices that reduce unnecessary medical debt from patients who qualify for free or discounted care.”

The lawmakers also asked the inspector general to explore how often nonprofit hospitals bill patients with “gross charges” and to make sure the IRS is doing enough to ensure hospitals are making “’reasonable efforts’ to determine whether individuals are eligible for financial assistance before initiating extraordinary collection actions.”

Both letters from the senators gave the tax regulators 60 days to provide the requested information.