Illinois Supreme Court: Hospitals’ property tax exemption is constitutional

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The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Sept. 21 that non-profit hospitals in the state do not have to pay property taxes as long as the value of the charitable services they provide is equal to or greater than the taxes they would have paid, according to The Chicago Tribune.

The ruling was an affirmation of a lower court decision that previously upheld the constitutionality of the property tax exemption, which was challenged in the lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Revenue by Cook County taxpayer Constance Oswald.

“When you give these hospitals a pass on paying real estate taxes, people within the counties where the hospitals are located have to make it up,” Edward Joyce, Ms. Oswald’s lawyer, told The Tribune.

But advocates for nonprofit hospitals argued the law allows them to fully dedicate themselves to delivering care to underserved patients.

“For nonprofit hospitals, property tax exemption fosters [transformation] by permitting them to focus their time, energy, and financial resources on new strategies to better serve all of the residents of our state.” said A.J. Wilhelmi, president and CEO of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association. “Taxing nonprofit hospitals would hurt the communities they serve by diverting dollars that are better used to care for patients and to upgrade equipment, modernize facilities and hire needed staff.”



A Little-Known Windfall for Some Hospitals, Now Facing Big Cuts

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Most hospitals are nonprofit and justify their exemption from taxation with community service and charity care. But the Trump administration could require some of them to do more to help the poor, and the hospitals that are in the cross-hairs are those benefiting from an obscure drug discount program known as 340B.

The 340B program requires pharmaceutical manufactures to sell drugs at steep discounts to certain hospitals serving larger proportions of low-income and vulnerable people, such as children or cancer patients. The participating hospitals may charge insurers and public programs like Medicare and Medicaid more for those drugs than they paid for them and keep the difference.

By one estimate, the program saved hospitals $6 billion in 2015 alone. The original intent of the program, enacted in 1992, was for hospitals to use the revenue to provide more low-income patients a broader range of services.

Many institutions that serve mostly low-income and uninsured populations say they need the program. “Most nonprofit hospitals have very slim profit margins, and they’ve come to rely on this revenue,” said Melinda Buntin, chairwoman of the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt School of Medicine. A hospital lobbying group said that for some rural hospitals, the funding cut “could actually be the difference between staying open and closing.”

But there is concern that 340B has come to include hospitals that don’t need the extra help and are not using its windfall as originally intended.

The program has grown considerably, most recently as a result of an expansion included in the Affordable Care Act. As of 2004, about 200 hospitals benefited from the 340B program; by 2015, over 1,000 were participating. The program now encompasses 40 percent of all hospitals and an even larger number of hospital-affiliated clinics and pharmacies.

It might seem odd to give discounts on drugs to help hospitals offer care to low-income patients. How can we be sure they’ll use the money for that?

An increasing number of hospitals are not.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the early participating hospitals were more likely to be located in poor communities with higher levels of uninsured people, to spend more of their budget on uncompensated care, and to offer more low-profit services than hospitals that started participating later.

“The 340B program may produce the results intended at some hospitals,” said Sayeh Nikpay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University and a co-author on the study. “But as the program grew, it benefited many hospitals with less need for assistance in serving low-income populations.”

Other research corroborates that hospitals aren’t using the 340B program as intendedA study in The New England Journal of Medicine was unable to find any evidence that profits from 340B have led to more access to care for low-income patients, or reductions in mortality rates among them. Another study in Health Affairs found that 340B hospitals have increasingly expanded into more affluent communities with higher rates of insurance.

The 340B program may have also inadvertently raised costs — for example, by encouraging care in 340B-eligible hospitals that could have been provided less expensively elsewhere. A study in Health Services Research found that hospital participation in 340B is associated with a shift of cancer care from lower-cost physician offices to higher-cost hospital settings.

The program may also encourage providers to use more expensive drugs. The more hospitals can charge insurers and public programs for a drug — relative to how much they have to pay for it under the program — the greater the revenue they receive. They also receive more revenue when the drugs are prescribed more often.

In January, Medicare lowered the prices it pays for 340B drugs by 27 percent. Although this move chips away at how much hospitals can benefit financially, it does little to address how much insurers and individuals pay for prescription drugs or the value they obtain from them. In addition, the move does nothing to increase hospital spending that could help the poor.

It may even harm some health care organizations, leading to lower-quality care at those institutions that are helping the poor. Studies have shown that, by and large, when hospitals lose financial resources, they make cuts that could harm some patients.

This can happen if cuts lead to reductions in workers who perform important clinical functions. A study in Health Services Research found that hospitals cut nursing staff in response to Medicare payment cuts in the late 1990s. Heart attack mortality rates improved less at hospitals that had larger cuts.

Another response to reduced revenue is cuts to specific services, which would harm patients who rely on them. A study by economists from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management found that some hospitals that endured financial setbacks during the Great Recession cut less profitable services like trauma centers and alcohol- and drug-treatment facilities.

Another study looked at a 1998 California law that required hospitals to comply with seismic safety standards — imposing a large cost on those institutions, without providing additional funding. Hospitals that were hit harder financially by this law were more likely to close; government hospitals responded by reducing charity care.

Hospitals could absorb cuts without harming care if they could become more productive — by doing more with less. Historically, there is very little evidence they have been able to do that.

Two powerful lobbies are now battling each other, with the pharmaceutical industry arguing that 340B has grown well beyond its original intent. Hospital lobbying groups are fighting back and also squaring off against the government, suing over the planned federal cuts.

Those are big clashes over a program that began modestly a quarter of a century ago to help the poor, albeit in a most convoluted way.



Geisinger reports net income increase despite issues with ACA health plan

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Dive Brief:

  • In a new financial report, Geisinger Health System reported a gain of nearly $200 million in net income to $324.9 million for the first half of fiscal year 2018 compared to the previous year, for an excess margin of 9%.
  • Operating income for the first six months was up from $51.9 million a year ago to $61.2 million in the current fiscal year and net revenue increased 8.1% to $3.3 billion. However, Geisinger’s operating margin dropped from 3% for the first three months of the fiscal year to 1.8% through half the year.
  • One area of concern for the integrated healthcare system was its Affordable Care Act (ACA) health plan. Geisinger Health Plan (GHP) struggled after the company didn’t get $11 million in cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments following President Donald Trump’s decision to stop payments in October.

Dive Insight:

Geisinger’s net revenue growth is connected to an increase in net patient service revenue after the provision for bad debts of nearly 5% and an increase in premium revenue of 11%.

“Net patient service revenue benefited from the realization of growth plans centered on market share growth and the opportunistic capture of high-acuity, clinical service volumes. Premium revenue benefited primarily from rate increases,” Geisinger said in the report.

ACA marketplace volatility, namely the end of CSR payments, as well as higher utilization affected GHP. The company believes the higher utilization is connected to GHP members concerned they would lose coverage if Congress repealed the ACA. Despite Congress’ and the president’s threats and a few close votes, the repeal didn’t happen. But before that effort stalled, Geisinger said many members got healthcare services just in case.

“Similarly, provider tiering in benefit plan changes for self-insured employees were announced in the fall of 2017. These benefit changes caused certain employees to accelerate medical services through providers that fall under higher out-of-pocket tiers beginning Jan. 1, 2018. These one-time impacts, while negatively affecting second-quarter results, are expected to improve operating profits beginning in the third fiscal quarter,” Geisinger said in the report.

Geisinger expects to resolve the CSR non-payment issue this year after raising the average premium rate by 31% to help offset the loss of payments. GHP also gained more than 20,000 members in its exchange plans, a 39% increase, for 2018, which should help offset losses.

GHP had 559,643 members in its health plans through the first half, which was a 0.4% increase compared to a year ago.

Concerning utilization, Geisinger had an increase of 3.5% in discharges and 2.6% in discharges and observations/23-hour stays compared to a year ago. “This growth was attributable to success in expanding clinical programs. Based solely upon hospitals controlled for two years or more, Geisinger experienced a 2.9% increase in discharges when compared to the year-earlier period,” the report states.

However, percent of occupancy based on physically available beds dipped from 60.2% to 59.9%.

Meanwhile, outpatient visits were on the rise. Outpatient emergency room visits increased from nearly 174,000 the previous year to almost 181,000 in fiscal 2018. Clinic outpatient visits increased from 1.65 million to 1.77 million.

Geisinger is the latest nonprofit to offer updates about finances. Over the past week, other major nonprofits have released financial information, including:

All had positive notes in their reports. Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic said operating income and revenue bounced back in 2017 after rough numbers in the previous year. UPMC said its clinical and insurance sides had strong performances as net income hit $1.3 billion. Profits for these companies have been scrutinized as critics question whether they are giving enough back to their communities as nonprofit organizations.

House GOP tax plan eliminates tax-exempt bonds that finance hospitals

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House Republicans recently unveiled a tax reform plan that calls for the elimination of private activity bond issuance, which is likely to significantly impact the entire nonprofit hospital sector.

Nonprofit hospitals issue tax-exempt bonds to finance capital projects. Under the tax plan, interest on newly issued private activity bonds would no longer be tax-exempt. This change would reduce financing options for lower-rated healthcare organizations by raising the cost of capital, according to S&P Global Ratings.

“From a credit perspective, higher borrowing rates can lead to budget imbalances, a challenge for all, and a hallmark of struggling credits,” said S&P. “We believe operating margin pressure is likely to be exacerbated by the House tax proposal, as it will pressure costs and hurt margins for a considerable portion of our rated healthcare providers.”

The American Hospital Association also noted how the tax plan could negatively impact healthcare providers. “For many communities, tax-exempt financing, such as private activity bonds, has been a key to maintaining vital hospital services,” said Tom Nickels, executive vice president of the AHA. “If hospital access to tax-exempt financing is limited or eliminated, hospitals’ ability to make investments in new technologies and renovations in the future will be challenged.”

Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, released a draft of Senate Republicans’ tax plan on Thursday. Unlike the House tax proposal, the Senate’s tax plan would not eliminate hospitals’ ability to access low-cost capital financing through tax-exempt bonds.

How the Cleveland Clinic grows healthier while its neighbors stay sick


The Clinic is a global success story, but its host community remains mired in poverty.

On the Cleveland Clinic’s sprawling campus one day last year, the hospital’s brain trust sat in all-white rooms and under soaring ceilings, looking down on a park outside and planning the next expansion of the $8 billion health system. A level down, in the Clinic’s expansive alumni library, staff browsed century-old texts while exhausted doctors took naps in cubbies. And in the basement, a cutting-edge biorobotics lab was simulating how humans walk using a cyborg-like meld of metallic and cadaver parts.

And about a block away — and across the street that separates the Clinic from the surrounding Fairfax neighborhood — a woman named Shelley Wheeler was trying to reattach the front door of her house. She’d had a break-in the night before.

Wheeler has lived in the neighborhood for almost 50 years and seen it wither; her street is dotted by vacant lots and blighted homes. Infant mortality is almost three times the national average. But she’s also warily watched as one player continues to grow: The health system with gleaming towers that are visible from her front stoop.

“Cleveland Clinic is just eating everything up that they can,” she said, pointing to the 17-block stretch of land where the system has steadily expanded — to the frustration and protests of Wheeler and her neighbors.

“At some point, Cleveland Clinic is going to come” for her land, she added. “When, we don’t know. I’m trying to save my house,” Wheeler said — before excusing herself to meet with police investigating her break-in.

There’s an uneasy relationship between the Clinic — the second-biggest employer in Ohio and one of the greatest hospitals in the world — and the community around it. Yes, the hospital is the pride of Cleveland, and its leaders readily tout reports that the Clinic delivers billions of dollars in value to the state. It’s even “attracting companies that will come and grow up around us,” said Toby Cosgrove, the longtime CEO, pointing to IBM’s decision to lease a building on the edge of campus. “That will be great [for] jobs and economic infusion in this area.”

But it’s also a tax-exempt organization that, like many hospitals, fought to preserve its not-for-profit status in the years leading up to the Affordable Care Act. As a result, it doesn’t have to pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes, but it is supposed to fulfill a loosely defined commitment to reinvest in its community.

That community is poor, unhealthy and — in the words of one national neighborhood-ranking website — “barely livable.”

More than one-third of residents in the census tract around the Clinic have diabetes, the worst rate in the city, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s just one of numerous chronic and preventable health conditions plaguing the area around the Clinic. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents say there are too few jobs and talk of hearing gunfire every night.

It’s the paradox at the heart of the Cleveland Clinic, as it lures wealthy patients and expands into cities like London and Abu Dhabi. Its stated mission is to save lives. But it can’t save the neighborhood that continues to crumble around it.

The neighborhood

The area around the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus has higher rates of diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

An oasis of prosperity

The local joke is that Cleveland’s economy is powered by its basketball team’s superstar LeBron James. But leaving the airport, the first billboard advertises the real engine of the city: its local hospitals. And no hospital is bigger, richer or more influential than the Cleveland Clinic — which was praised by both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in their 2012 debates, a rare point of agreement between the candidates. (The Clinic took out full-page ads to celebrate.)

While Cleveland isn’t especially prosperous, the Clinic’s campus is a world apart, evoking an upscale resort or an airport’s international terminal — an alternate universe where smokers and fast-food restaurants are banned, where foreign-language speakers are numerous and where live music and farmers markets are frequent.

The streets of the Clinic’s 165-acre campus are smooth; the bike lanes paved; a 77-foot-wide fountain greets visitors outside the main lobby. The buildings are all sleek steel and glass — a deliberately white color scheme that resembles an Apple store. Guests can take tours to see the thousands of pieces of art dotting the rooms and walls, picked out by the Clinic’s three full-time curators. A spine of green parks wind between more than a dozen buildings. High-profile speakers like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella drop by for televised conversations with Clinic CEO Cosgrove.

All the major buildings are connected by skyways, some of which feature flat-screen TVs that loop ads for the Clinic’s own services. A doctor on staff could spend years entirely inside this bubble, from parking in an adjacent garage every morning — where art prints from artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein hang in the corridors — to eating at the 24-hour Au Bon Pain, never setting foot on the sidewalks outside.

The beautiful, sheltered campus reflects decades of willful development, says Richey Piiparinen, who studies urban planning at Cleveland State University and says that the Clinic — like many big-city institutions — has deliberately walled itself off. “It’s divorced from the neighborhood. It’s [even] policed differently,” Piiparinen said, referencing the Clinic’s private force of 122 officers.

Step off campus, and the cracked sidewalks and trash welcome you to a different world; a dozen empty liquor bottles littered one half-block alone.

Just a few blocks from the Clinic’s high-end Intercontinental Hotel — where the flagship restaurant serves $49 steaks and $220 bottles of Dom Perignon — a McDonald’s sign announces $1 soft drinks. There are boarded-up buildings and weed-choked vacant lots. One store advertises bail bonds.

The population of the two neighborhoods that surround the Clinic — Fairfax and Hough, which are about 95 percent African-American — dwindled to 18,000 as of 2010, down from more than 38,000 in 1980 and more than 100,000 in 1960. There’s visible blight and houses with peeling paint. One fence was draped by an assortment of raggedy clothes, slowly getting soaked in a rainstorm. Unlike the Clinic just blocks away, there are no bike lanes.

And the poverty manifests in poor health outcomes, with the rate of preventable illnesses like chronic heart disease and high cholesterol well above the local and national averages. The Clinic’s own community assessment, published last year, ranked Fairfax and Hough as “highest need” possible in terms of health care access.

“You have one of the best global brands in health care, but some of the worst health care disparities” next door, Piiparinen said. “That’s the impact of not being connected to the neighborhoods.”

A climate of mistrust

It wasn’t always this way.

Almost a century ago, when the Cleveland Clinic set up shop on Euclid Avenue, the street was known as Millionaire’s Row. Industrialists like John Rockefeller and other elites made their homes on the boulevard. But the neighborhood turned over as taxes went up and wealthy residents fled to the suburbs. Today, there’s a very different millionaires row: The line of doctors’ luxury cars every morning, driving in from Cleveland’s suburbs in their high-end SUVs and even a few Teslas.

That daily traffic helped lead to a $331 million construction project called the Opportunity Corridor, a new three-mile highway that’s backed by the Clinic, run by the state transportation department and involves ripping up streets and tearing down dilapidated parts of town. (When asked about the project’s purpose, the Clinic’s top tour guide explained that the current road to campus “goes through neighborhoods that people don’t want to go through” and the Opportunity Corridor would help staff and patients get to the hospital faster.)

The construction project has been bogged down by controversy, however. A local councilman, T.J. Dow, temporarily blocked the project in early 2016, warning that the redevelopment wouldn’t benefit the residents of his community. The city later withheld millions of dollars in funding, saying the state wasn’t meeting its promised goals for minority hiring, before reaching a new deal last year.

Area residents circulate scare stories about the Clinic that are a mix of half-truths and outright myths. Several old churches in the neighborhood have burned down in recent years, and after the Clinic bought one newly vacant lot, some residents engaged in wild speculation — without any evidence — that the Clinic was responsible for the blaze. The Clinic has built power stations in the neighborhood that, despite no scientific proof, have alarmed locals who are worried about health risks.

That fear goes both ways: Even longtime Clinic leaders are uneasy about the neighborhood that they’ve spent years in. “I should’ve warned you: Don’t walk around here at night,” one 15-year executive advised.

Neighborhood residents are especially dismissive of the disproportionately white or foreign patients they see flock to the Clinic, suggesting that their presence is subtly gentrifying the neighborhood. A signature project by the local development corporation — which is backed in part by Clinic donations — was a large Middle Eastern market that’s a few blocks off campus and clearly intended for international customers. Over the course of four nights in an on-campus hotel last year — no matter the hour — as many as eight Middle Eastern men would sit around a table off the lobby, drinking tea and wearing garb that stood out in gloomy, rainy Cleveland. The hotel also offered subtle cues about who its best customers are; in the gym, there wasn’t a working channel showing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, but there were nearly two dozen international channels, mostly in Arabic.

International patients are especially appealing to the Clinic and other top hospitals because they pay full fare — much more than the Medicaid rates for poor patients and a lot more than the fractional pay or charity care write-offs from treating the uninsured.

The campus’ expansion and seeming priorities aren’t lost on residents. One elderly African-American woman, a retired nurse who worked for decades in the city’s public hospital, said she’d talk about the Clinic only if I didn’t use her name. “You know what we call it?” she said, lowering her voice. “The plantation.”

“Cleveland Clinic and Toby Cosgrove really need to renegotiate their relationship with the black community,” said John Boyd, whose family has lived about two blocks away from campus since 1923 — and who says he’s scared to go to the Clinic for treatment. “[They’ve] been absolutely no benefit to the black community.”

Tensions break out

Those tensions spilled out at a community meeting in March 2016, as more than 100 black residents vented for hours about the Opportunity Corridor project.

The standing-room-only meeting — deliberately held in an events room at a local police station, Councilman Dow told the crowd, because previous meetings had been so rowdy — was framed as a chance to discuss the Opportunity Corridor’s effect on the community. Dow and two other black councilmen, Zack Reed and Jeffrey Johnson, stood at the front of the room — along with a pair of white out-of-town developers, who had projects tied to the corridor.

The atmosphere was heated from the opening moments, as some community members stood to harangue Dow, asking if he was holding up the project to seek side deals; others worried that the community was giving up valuable land for too little return.

But after a rough start, the councilmen began winning over the crowd after channeling their frustration toward the out-of-town developers and invoking the community’s distrust of the Clinic.

“I told Dr. Cosgrove, the people in my neighborhood don’t trust the Clinic,” Reed said, warning that the system’s vague promises of helping the community didn’t usually end well. “We the people of color, the poor people, get what I call the hot dog and beer jobs.”

“I said to Dr. Cosgrove, you got to take down that invisible wall,” Reed added. “If you only believe you can work across the street if you’ve got a medical degree, then it’s us against them … We’ve got to train people in the neighborhood to work there.”

“Now you’re talking,” a woman shouted from the crowd.

“We need a hand up, not a handout,” Dow added.

After the meeting, the councilmen acknowledged the difficult relationship between the city and its flagship institution.

“If there’s anything that Cleveland Clinic does for the neighborhood, it’s that they’re located in Cleveland — and everyone who works there pays taxes,” Johnson said. But the hospital doesn’t do enough to provide emergency care, he charged; unlike its neighbor University Hospitals, it’s not a Level 1 trauma center, and the Clinic was sued by the city in 2010 and again in 2011 for failing to provide sufficient services when it closed one of its hospitals in economically deprived East Cleveland.

That lawsuit was resolved, but some bad feelings still linger — along with the perception that the Clinic is more concerned with complex procedures that attract foreign patients than the well-being of its neighbors.

“You can come from the Mideast and get a heart, but you can’t run down there” for an emergency, Johnson complained. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.”

‘We have more than fulfilled our duties’

Clinic leaders see it differently – and not just about its commitment to the neighborhoods. The hospital that the Clinic closed in East Cleveland was replaced by a new community center that leaders tout as a “model of success.”

“We have three obligations,” Cosgrove told POLITICO in a nearly hourlong interview. “We need to provide great health care, we need to provide great jobs and we need to support education. And we have done all those three things.”

The Clinic is ranked second in the U.S. News & World Report hospital rankings, an ever-present point of pride around the campus and in its marketing materials. It employs nearly 50,000 people in Ohio, just a few hundred jobs behind the state’s top employer, Walmart. And it spends millions of dollars on its own physician education as well as making community investments, like partnering with a local high school on a fast-track health and science program.

The Clinic also has put $500,000 into a program to get rid of blighted homes in the neighborhood, Cosgrove said, and has channeled funds and support into the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp., which is involved in job training and other community services.

“This particular area of town, 40 years ago, was way worse than it is now,” Cosgrove said.

One of the Clinic’s most significant community investments is in the Langston Hughes Community Health and Education Center, a facility that’s a mile from campus and which offers services like free exercise equipment, adult day care and even some primary care. It’s a hub for uninsured neighborhood residents to be steered toward health coverage, and patient navigators on staff said they end up directing about 90 percent of residents with medical needs to the Clinic. And it has devoted fans who say the center is one of the only safe places in the neighborhood.

“I wish we had more [services] like it,” said Juliet Jones, a retired nurse who lives two blocks away — and who carries a miniature baseball bat whenever she leaves her house, worried about community violence and drug dealers. Jones says she can barely sleep at night, hearing gunshots and prowlers. Nearly every lot on her street is vacant, including the house Jones owns next door; after repeated break-ins, her daughter moved out.

Donnell Ezell is another patron of the center and, in many ways, a clear Clinic success story: The former occupational therapy assistant worked for the Clinic for years and got thousands of dollars in financial assistance to help buy a home and move into the neighborhood. Now retired, Ezell uses the Langston Hughes center to exercise and help his daughter, who was born with special needs, and he speaks with pride about what the hospital has done for him; a Clinic-branded chair, emblazoned with his name, is prominently displayed in his living room.

But the question isn’t whether the Clinic is doing good things for the community, critics say. It’s whether it’s doing enough.

Thanks to a loosely defined 50-year-old IRS regulation, the hospital is required to provide only “community benefit” in exchange for its tax exemption — no matter what those taxes would be worth. And in late 2013, three social advocacy groups concluded that the Clinic’s tax-exempt property in Cleveland was worth $1 billion, which meant the hospital was saving $35 million in annual property taxes alone. (The value of that property, and the forgone taxes, has only gone up since.) That money could go toward schools, roads and other city projects that desperately need funds, advocates say.

“It’s crazy to ask the everyday common person to invest in the city when you have these enormous nonprofits that aren’t,” saidScherhera Shearer, head of Common Good, one of the three advocacy groups, at the time.

But the clinic rebutted that report and has fiercely defended its tax-exempt status, successfully defeating regulators in 2014 after a decade-long battle when they attempted to strip property tax exemptions from a pair of satellite offices.

Cosgrove consistently argues that taxes would only worsen the financial pressures on hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic, and in his interview with POLITICO he pointed out that 23 percent of hospitals lost money last year. But that ignores that the Clinic isn’t one of them. Cosgrove’s hospital system cleared $514 million in profit last year and $2.7 billion the past four years, when accounting for investments and other sources of revenue.

And since the ACA coverage expansion took full effect, the Clinic’s been able to spend a lot less to cover uninsured patients; its annual charity care costs fell by $106 million from 2013 to 2015. But its annual community benefit spending only went up $41 million across the same two-year period, raising a $65 million question: Did the Clinic just pocket the difference in savings?

“I think we have more than fulfilled our duties,” Cosgrove said in response, pointing to the system’s total community benefit spending, which was $693 million in 2015. The majority of that spending, however, wasn’t free care or direct investments in community health; about $500 million, or more than 70 percent, represented either Medicaid underpayments — the gap between the Clinic’s official rate, which is usually higher than the rate insurers pay, and what Medicaid pays — or Clinic staffers’ own medical education.

Clinic leaders also argue that the hospital is a magnet that attracts talent and revenue to Ohio. The system calculated that its direct economic impact on Ohio in 2015 was $6.8 billion and its indirect economic impact was $5.8 billion.

“There are people like me who have moved to Cleveland to work for the Cleveland Clinic,” said Chief Financial Officer Steven Glass, who came to the system 15 years ago from Maryland-based MedStar.

“It’s not just how many people are employed at the Clinic,” Glass added. “When you’re drawing in world-renowned physicians, these are well-paying jobs in the community that then create [a] cascading effect.”

But community residents say those dollars are largely spent in other neighborhoods and they don’t see much trickle-down effect on their own; Glass himself lives in a suburb a half-hour away. “Other than fast-food chains, there’s nothing else around,” said Jones, the retired nurse.

Teenagers who live in the neighborhood and were interning at the Clinic said that’s where they want to work as adults; they were stumped about where they would work, if not at the Clinic. “Construction,” said one 14-year-old girl — gesturing to the hospital’s in-progress project across the street.

There’s also a perception problem, at best, with what the Clinic thinks it does for the community versus what it actually does. Several Clinic PR staffers suggested that Microsoft CEO Nadella’s interview with Cosgrove was an example of how the hospital opens itself up, with community members welcome to drop by. But the free tickets to the one-hour session had been pre-booked online well in advance, and the overflow room was packed by staffers wearing doctor’s coats and Cleveland Clinic badges. (Many neighborhood residents said they weren’t especially interested in the talk, and didn’t know who Nadella was.)

Several Clinic officials pointed to a weekly farmers market on campus as another service for the community, which lacks grocery stores. But the vendors at the market tell a different story, both in terms of their products — many of which are upscale conveniences like flowers or dog treats — and their clientele.

The customers at the market “are mostly doctors and nurses,” said one vendor operating a stand that sold wool and honey products. That account was confirmed by residents. “Too expensive,” said 76-year-old Betty Moise, who’s lived in the neighborhood for almost five decades.

How much more should be done?

One way the Clinic could make a difference, some activists say, is by working out what’s called a payment in lieu of taxes — essentially, keeping their valued tax-exempt status but making a partial contribution instead. Hospitals have struck deals to do so in Boston and other cities, but Cosgrove isn’t keen on the idea in Cleveland. “As soon as they start doing the same thing with the churches and the Salvation Army and the Red Cross and all the other tax-exempt organizations, we’d be happy to do our part,” he said.

The Clinic also could ramp up investments in out-of-hospital care and social supports, part of a movement toward what’s called population health — where fixing community problems like lead exposure and food deserts are viewed as equally important as treating heart attacks. There’s a financial incentive for doing it well: Hospitals that succeed at population health are being rewarded with higher payments from insurance companies and the federal government.

But Cosgrove hesitates on committing wholeheartedly to that idea, too. “That’s a good direction to go,” he allowed. “But how much can we do in population health?”

“We don’t get paid for this, we’re not trained to do this, and people are increasingly looking to us to deal with these sorts of situations,” Cosgrove added. “I say that society as a whole has to look at these circumstances and they can’t depend on just us.”

Job counselors say there’s one move the Clinic can easily make: Be more generous with its approach to neighborhood hiring. Deborah Copeland, who does workforce development and career coaching at Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp., says she’s seen community members get hired at the Clinic in entry-level jobs — and promptly fired because they didn’t fit in right away or had problems managing themselves in the workforce.

“They call all of their employees caregivers. And I like that,” Copeland said. “But all caregivers are not caregivers every day,” she added, saying it’s important to realize that “people come with a lot of baggage sometimes and need to be developed.”

Copeland says her team has helped a few dozen community members get jobs at the Clinic over the past few years — a step in the right direction. But given the generations of built-in poverty and the neighborhood’s deep disparities, experts say it’s like hoping a sand wall will hold back the tide.

“How do you [intentionally] break down the barriers, after they … built them up?” muses Piiparinen, the Cleveland State University researcher. “The two easiest ways to do it are have your employees live in the neighborhood, and have your tenured residents work in the anchor institutions themselves,” he offered — not easy to do when the neighborhood is so poor and the Clinic wants to hire highly skilled doctors, researchers and managers.

Piiparinen and others acknowledge that while the Clinic is investing off campus, it will take more investment and commitment — much more — to really reverse a decades-long trend. But the Clinic’s eyes are elsewhere. Its most visible projects and leaders’ excitement center on a new on-campus building that’s designed by Norman Foster — “the world’s leading architect,” as various staff members enthused — and its planned hospital in London, overlooking Buckingham Palace.

And more expansion in Cleveland is inevitable. In the hospital’s master planning room, tucked behind an unmarked door just steps from the main lobby, the footprints of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore are laid over maps of the Clinic, which dwarfs them. Those maps are a reminder, said a Clinic spokesman, that “our national rivals, Mayo Clinic [and Hopkins] … they don’t own the buildings around them, they have no place to grow but up.” In contrast, “we own much of the neighborhood around us and can really grow.”

There’s certainly plenty of opportunity, between the property the Clinic already owns and the empty patches that increasingly dot the neighborhood as it slowly dies. And that’s what folks like Moise, who moved to Cleveland in 1968 and sat with friends on a sidewalk, half-expect to see happen.

“I sat and watched them cut that field yesterday. The city cut it. It looks so pretty,” she said, gesturing to the vacant lot across the street, covered in grass. “But I often wondered … I might be dead and gone … I often wonder, what would they build there?”

House GOP tax cut bill has pluses and pitfalls for healthcare stakeholders

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Healthcare companies, executives and professionals could enjoy lower business and personal taxes while facing reduced revenue due to Medicare and Medicaid cuts that may be used to pay for the tax reductions, under the House Republican tax reform bill released Thursday.

The 429-page Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—which congressional Republicans hope to pass quickly through the expedited budget reconciliation process with little or no Democratic support—would slash the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. That would benefit profitable companies like UnitedHealth Group, HCA and Universal Health Services, according to an analysis by Mizuho Securities.

The tax plan also would sharply raise the income threshold for individuals and families paying the top personal tax rate of 39.6%, to $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for married couples. In addition, it would abolish the alternative minimum tax. Those provisions would reduce personal income taxes for many healthcare executives and professionals.

But at the same time, the bill would cap corporate interest deductions at 30% of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. That could hurt companies carrying large debt loads such as Tenet Healthcare Corp. and Community Health Systems, which declined to comment on the bill.

“For companies that are profitable, the lower corporate tax rate is a powerful generator of cash flow,” said Sheryl Skolnick, managing director at Mizuho. “But for highly levered companies, the interest deduction is quite powerful for them in reducing their tax bill. If that deduction is no longer available, that would be a negative for money-losing companies with little cash flow to begin with.”

Healthcare industry groups will have to consider how the long-term budget impact of the tax cuts will affect broader health policies.

“This is clearly a package that will increase the deficit significantly,” said Matt Fiedler, an economist at the Brookings Institution’s Center on Health Policy. “Ultimately the lower revenues need to be financed by reduced federal spending. Since healthcare programs are a large portion of the budget, this will create pressure for cuts in those programs.”

The release of the House GOP bill Thursday was the first step in what’s likely to be a politically difficult process of passing a bill in the House and reconciling it with a separate Senate GOP tax bill scheduled for release as early as next week. The legislation is likely to come under heavy fire from various industry and consumer groups as well as Democrats as the winners and losers are identified.

But congressional GOP leaders and President Donald Trump believe they can’t afford another legislative failure following the collapse of their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “We made a promise to deliver tax reform that creates more jobs, fairer taxes, and bigger paychecks,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said in a written statementaccompany the bill’s release.

Paul Keckley, a veteran industry analyst, said healthcare companies will hold off on making any financial adjustments based on this bill because it’s certain to undergo substantial changes before anything is passed. “With all the darts that will be thrown at this thing, it’s a long way from the finish line,” he said.

Beyond the immediate tax impact, however, analysts cautioned that healthcare companies should beware of big cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act funding that Congress may consider to offset the revenue losses from the bill’s tax cuts. The House and Senate budget resolutions capped the 10-year cost of the tax cut package at $1.5 trillion.

A Democratic analysis of the Senate budget blueprint passed by Republicans last month found that it would cut Medicaid by $1 trillion and Medicare by $473 billion over 10 years.

“This massive tax cut for the rich would add trillions of dollars to the national debt, allowing Republicans to then come after Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other middle-class priorities,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a written statement.

“There’s no way you can offset $1.5 trillion in tax cuts without looking at entitlements,” said Anders Gilberg, senior vice president for government affairs at the Medical Group Management Association.

He worried that if congressional Republicans seek to cut Medicare to recoup those revenue losses, that could destabilize the current transition of physicians from fee-for-service to value-based payment. “We’ll be looking at what the offsets are,” he said. “This sounds easy until you have tension between cutting taxes and being accountable for the deficit.”

Skolnick agreed that hospital leaders need to watch out for possible cuts in federal healthcare programs as a way to pay for the tax cuts. “Unless you pay a whole lot of whopping taxes, tax reform will be a net negative for the hospital sector, both for-profit and not-for-profit,” she predicted. “Careful what you wish for, you may get it.”

The American Hospital Association raised objections to two provisions of the bill affecting hospitals. One would stop treating tax-exempt bonds as investment property. The AHA warned that if hospitals’ access to tax-exempt financing is limited or eliminated, they would have a harder time investing in new technologies and renovations.

The other measure would impose a 20% excise tax on executive compensation above $1 million. The AHA said the law already requires a rigorous process for hospital boards to set compensation based on competitive market rates for top talent.

Physician groups were left behind on the bill’s provision reducing tax rates for pass-through entities. Passive owners of S corporations and limited liability corporations — the structures used by many medical groups — would be able to pay just a 25% tax rate rather than the 39.6% top rate for personal income. But medical groups and other professional service firms would not receive that reduced rate unless they were able to show the income was not labor-related.

“I’m disappointed we wouldn’t see a benefit for our members,” said Tina Hogeman, the MGMA’s chief financial officer.

She also worried about the bill’s $500,000 cap on home mortgage interest deductions, down from the current $1 million. “That’s a real problem for our members,” she said. “The average physician has a home that cost more than $500,000.”

A controversial provision of the House GOP bill that affects consumers is the proposed elimination of itemized deductions for high medical expenses, including long-term care costs. That deduction costs the Treasury about $10 billion a year. The AHA opposes ending that deduction.

The Brookings Institution’s Fiedler said that while the deduction isn’t well-targeted to help people with high medical costs, it’s a bad idea to repeal it to help pay for tax cuts for corporations and wealthier Americans.

“It could be sensible policy to repeal the deduction, but here it’s just financing regressive tax cuts,” Fiedler said.

Healthcare industry groups and supporters of the Affordable Care Act were relieved that the House GOP tax bill did not include provisions Republicans were considering to repeal the ACA’s individual mandate or erase the ACA’s taxes on wealthier people’s investment earnings. Those provisions could have undermined the individual insurance market and the financing for the law’s coverage subsidies.

“The bill is most notable for what’s not in there,” Fiedler said.

Hospital CEOs could face new taxes 

The Republican tax overhaul bill also includes a small section that would levy a 20% excise tax on any wages of more $1 million for executives who work at tax-exempt organizations. Guess who’s not thrilled about that? Hospitals.

What they’re saying: The American Hospital Association said it was “concerned” about that provision because “there is already a rigorous process prescribed by the Internal Revenue Service for setting up executive compensation.”

Go deeper: As Axios’ Bob Herman has reported, hospital and health system CEOs command some of the highest salaries in the not-for-profit world.