The recent articles in the New York Times about the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) have once again raised important questions about the role of for-profit hospitals in the U.S. healthcare system. For-profits make up about 20% of all hospitals and many of them are part of large chains (such as HCA). Critics of for-profit hospitals have argued that these institutions sacrifice good patient care in their search for better financial returns. Supporters argue that there is little evidence that their behavior differs substantially from non-profit institutions or that their care is meaningfully worse.
To me, this is essentially an empirical question. Yet, I read the through the articles, I was struck by the dearth of data provided on the quality of care at these hospitals. Based on the comments that followed the stories, it was clear that many readers came away thinking that these hospitals had sacrificed quality in order to maximize profits. Here, I thought an ounce of evidence might be helpful.
There is no perfect way to measure the quality of a hospital. However, the science of quality measurement has made huge progress over the past decade. There is increasing consensus around a set of metrics, many of which are now publicly reported by the government and even are part of pay-for-performance schemes. While one can criticize every one of these metrics as imperfect, taken together, they paint a relatively good, broad picture of the quality of care in an institution. We focused on five metrics with widespread acceptance:
For more than a year, I have immersed myself in the history of for-profit hospital chains and their associated enterprises. My goal is to produce an account of the for-profit sector that will be a valuable resource to all parties involved in the serious health care policy-making that must surely take place in coming years.
Along the way, I have begun to understand the pressures that will soon make for-profit provider chains an even greater force than they already are – and will lead to an existential crisis in the non-profit hospital sector.
Hospitals wield immense influence in every city and county in the U.S. They are always among the largest employers in town. They touch the lives of all in the community as the sites of all births, most deaths and many health events in between.
Even the smallest hospital, in the smallest town, is worth tens of millions of dollars. Thus, for example, buyers in 2010 paid $28 million for a 124-bed facility in Marion, South Carolina (population 7,000), and $86 million for a 108-bed hospital in Ottumwa, Iowa (population 25,000). And at the upper end of the scale, another buyer acquired the 2,000-bed Detroit Medical Center for $1.5 billion.
Those buyers were for-profit hospital chains, and the sellers were non-profit operators. Some of the factors motivating such transactions have been around since the advent of the for-profit chain era in the 1960s – including inadequate access to capital for charities and local governments that needed to upgrade their hospitals, competitive pressure from deep-pocketed for-profits, and crises arising from poor management and governance. Although not-for-profit hospitals have long been coping with those issues and have often chosen to solve their problems by selling out to the for-profit chains, eighty percent of American hospitals are still non-profits, with about a third of those being government-owned. Those proportions are about to change dramatically.
I am getting caught up on the news after a couple of weeks away and two stories caught my attention. The first is the ongoing debate about the tax exempt status of Illinois nonprofit hospitals, which has received extensive coverage in the Chicago Tribune. Nonprofits avoid paying most state taxes, notably property taxes. For some nonprofit, the tax exemption could be worth tens of millions of dollars annually.
The question before the state is what they should expect of nonprofits in exchange for tax exemption. The current law requires nonprofits to provide “community benefits” commensurate with their tax savings. The state and the Illinois Hospital Association have been unable to find mutually acceptable language to replace this vague standard. The most draconian approach limits community benefits to charity care. At the other extreme, the IHA (and the Chicago Tribune) largely back a proposal by the Civic Federation that defines community benefits broadly to include losses incurred on Medicare, Medicare, bad debt, and community outreach programs.
A few years ago, I advised the state Attorney General’s office on this issue. I argued for the following conceptual approach: In exchange for tax exemption, nonprofit hospitals should be required to perform a commensurate level of “charitable acts,” which I defined as services and programs for which the hospital expects to lose money. Alternatively, charitable acts are those that investor-owned hospitals would not undertake.