Over the years, some policymakers have questioned whether nonprofit hospitals—which account for nearly three-fifths (58%) of community hospitals—provide sufficient benefit to their communities to justify their exemption from federal, state, and local taxes.
This issue has been the subject of renewed interest in light of reports of nonprofit hospitals taking aggressive steps to collect unpaid medical bills, including suing patients over unpaid medical debt, including patients who are likely eligible for financial assistance. Further, recent research indicates that nonprofit hospitals devote a similar or smaller share of their operating expenses to charity care in comparison to for-profit hospitals. In light of these concerns, several policy ideas have been floated to better align the level of community benefits provided by nonprofit hospitals with the value of their tax exemption.
This data note provides an estimate of the value of tax exemption for nonprofit facilities based on hospital cost reports, filings with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and American Hospital Association (AHA) survey data (see Methods for additional details). We define the value of tax exemption as the benefit of not having to pay federal and state corporate income taxes, typically not having to pay state and local sales taxes and local property taxes, and any increases in charitable contributions and decreases in bond interest rate payments that might arise due to receiving tax-exempt status.
The total estimated value of tax exemption for nonprofit hospitals was about $28 billion in 2020 (Figure 1). This represented over two-fifths (44%) of net income (i.e., revenues minus expenses) earned by nonprofit facilities in that year. To put the value of tax exemption in perspective, our estimate is similar to the total value of Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share hospital (DSH) payments in the same year ($31.9 billion in fiscal year 2020) (i.e., supplemental payments to hospitals that care for a disproportionate share of low-income patients which are intended, in part, to offset the costs of charity care and other uncompensated care).
The estimated value of federal tax-exempt status was $14.4 billion in 2020, which represents about half (51%) of the total value of tax exemption. This is primarily due to the estimated value of not having to pay federal corporate income taxes ($10.3 billion). In addition, we assumed that individuals contribute more to tax-exempt hospitals because they can deduct donations from their income tax base ($2.5 billion) and issue bonds at lower interest rates because the interest is not taxed ($1.6 billion). Our estimates of changes in charitable contributions and interest rates on bonds only account for federal tax rates for simplicity and may therefore understate the total value of tax exemption because they do not account for the effects of state taxes.
The total estimated value of state and local tax-exempt status was $13.7 billion in 2020, which represents about half (49%) of the total value of tax exemption. This amount includes the estimated value of not having to pay state or local sales taxes ($5.7 billion), local property taxes ($5.0 billion) or state corporate income taxes ($3.0 billion).
The total estimated value of tax exemption (about $28 billion) exceeded total estimated charity care costs ($16 billion) among nonprofit hospitals in 2020 (Figure 2), though charity care represents only a portion of the community benefits reported by these facilities. Hospital charity care programs provide free or discounted services to eligible patients who are unable to afford their care and represent one of several different types of community benefits reported by hospitals.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also defines community benefits to include unreimbursed Medicaid expenses, unreimbursed health professions education, and subsidized health services that are not means-tested, among other activities. One study estimated that the value of tax exemption exceeded the value of community benefits broadly for about one-fifth (19%) of nonprofit hospitals during 2011-2018 or about two-fifths (39%) when considering the incremental value of community benefits provided relative to for-profit facilities. Other research suggests that nonprofit hospitals devote a similar or smaller share of their operating expenses to charity care and unreimbursed Medicaid costs—which accounted for most of the value of community benefits in 2017—when compared to for-profit hospitals.
The value of tax exemption grew from about $19 billion in 2011 to about $28 billion in 2020, representing a 45 percent increase (Figure 3). The value of tax exemption increased in most of the years (7 out of 9) in our analysis, though there was a notable decrease of $5.8 billion in 2018. The largest single-year increase was $4.1 billion in 2020. The large decrease in the value of tax exemption in 2018 coincided with the implementation of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which permanently reduced the federal corporate income tax rate from 35 to 21 percent and therefore decreased the value of being exempt from federal income taxes.
The large increase in the value of tax exemption in 2020 overlapped with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase primarily reflects a large increase in aggregate net income for nonprofit hospitals in 2020. Although there were disruptions in hospital operations in 2020, hospitals received substantial amounts of government relief, and it is possible that other sources of revenue, such as from investment income, may have also increased. Increases in net income in turn increased the value of not having to pay federal and state income taxes.
Increases in the estimated value of tax exemption over time also reflect net income growth that preceded the pandemic as well as increases in estimated property values, supply expenses, and charitable contributions, each of which would carry tax implications if hospitals lost their tax-exempt status (e.g., with some supply expenses being subject to sales taxes). Even when setting aside the strong financial performance of nonprofit hospitals in 2020 as a potential outlier, total net income among nonprofit facilities increased substantially in the preceding years, before increasing further in 2020. Although we are not able to directly observe the value of the real estate owned by hospitals, the estimated value of exemption from local property taxes—which is based on our analysis of property taxes paid by for-profit hospitals—increased by 63 percent from 2011 to 2019. Finally, the supply expenses in our analysis increased by 44 percent and charitable contributions increased by 49 percent from 2011 to 2019.
The estimated value of tax exemption for nonprofit hospitals increased from about $19 billion in 2011 to about $28 billion in 2020. The rising value of tax exemption means that federal, state, and local governments have been forgoing increasing amounts of revenue over time to provide tax benefits to nonprofit hospitals, crowding out other uses of those funds. This has raised questions about whether nonprofit facilities provide sufficient benefit to their communities to justify this tax benefit. Federal regulations require, among other things, that nonprofit hospitals provide some level of charity care and other community benefits as a condition of receiving tax-exempt status. However, a 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report raised questions about whether the government has adequately enforced this requirement. Further, some argue that the federal definition of “community benefits” is too broad—e.g., by including medical training and research that could benefit hospitals directly—though others believe that the definition is too narrow. Most states have additional community benefit requirements for nonprofit or broader groups of hospitals—such as providing charity care to patients below a specified income threshold—though there is little information about the effectiveness of these regulations or the extent to which they are enforced.
Several policy ideas have been floated at the federal and state level that would increase the regulation of community benefits spending among nonprofit hospitals or among hospitals more generally. These include proposals to create or expand state requirements that hospitals provide charity care to patients below a specified income threshold, mandate that nonprofit hospitals provide a minimum amount of community benefits, establish a floor-and-trade system where hospitals would be required to either provide a minimum amount of charity care or subsidize other hospitals that do so, create mechanisms to increase the uptake of charity care, expand oversight and enforcement of community benefit requirements, replace current tax benefits with a subsidy that is tied to the value of community benefits provided, and introduce reforms intended to better align community benefits with local or regional needs.
These policy options would inevitably involve tradeoffs. While they may expand the provision of certain community benefits, hospitals would incur new costs as a result, which could in turn have implications for what services they offer, how much they charge commercially insured patients, and how much they invest in the quality of care.