New Orleans John Bouman, the President of the Sargent Shriver Poverty Law Center based in Chicago was my guest on Wade’s World recently on KABF/FM talking about a number of subjects but especially the handles for pushing nonprofit hospitals to provide care for lower income families as part of their nonprofit status and especially their federal tax exemptions under the 501c3 classification of the Internal Revenue Service. He continues to have hope that the Affordable Care Act can decrease inequality and particularly can advance racial equality since African-Americans and Hispanics have gotten such short shrift from the health care system of the country. He argued vigorously, and correctly, that the Affordable Care Act was the most significant piece of social legislation passed and implemented over the last fifty years.
Bouman mentioned that in Illinois, thanks to unions and community pressure including from the old ACORN affiliates, they had enjoyed a version of the new national rule that forces nonprofit hospitals to actually deliver more free and reduced price health care to lower income families for some years. Their rule seems like it might even be a model for best practices for all of the hospitals now under the federal mandate to produce a rule that would allow them to keep their tax exemptions. The Illinois standard is transparent. A family would be eligible for such care at 200% of the poverty level. I like a “no ifs, ands, and buts” standard, and that’s what we need to push for everywhere. The Illinois standard also was clear about remedial practices before more strenuous collection efforts.
Almost in passing, Bouman mentioned that in Illinois the state and some cities and counties also had the ability to punish hospitals that were scofflaws on the act or really just wolves in the sheep’s clothing of nonprofits. I asked Bouman how could they do that, and he said of course they could take away any local or statewide property or revenue tax exemptions or allowances that they were getting as nonprofits with their charitable status. Whoa, I thought! We had overlooked the obvious handle there that could help us bring the fight to a very local level.
In Louisiana, where we might not have a chance with the state, the local assessors at the parish or county level are elected and often very close to the ground in terms of their responsiveness to community pressure and organizing. Furthermore, there are absolutely property tax exemptions enjoyed by all of the big, and many of the small, tax exempt organizations from the huge outfits like the universities and colleges as well as the small housing operations holding properties for development. Immediately, I could see organizationally how we could challenge a host of property tax exemptions that are worth millions.
In Arkansas, a quick look comes down to a test of how “public” the service or facility might be. My point is that in each state and in many local jurisdictions there might be handles available to increase the pressure for hospitals to do right. The fight itself might be enough to force some change, as we have already seen in the reaction of St. Joseph, Missouri’s Heartland Hospital and its jump to attention when they received an inquiry from Iowa’s Senator Charles Grassley asking them to defend their exemption given their collection practices.
It might be one thing for nonprofit hospitals to turn their backs on community organizations and unions asking about their policies and asking them to do better, but it would be a whole different problem if they had to defend such inadequate programs and cutthroat collection efforts in public before a board of adjustment, an assessor, a tax equalization board or any other public forum.