The Facts

On May 18, 2009, the Senate Finance Committee released the last of its three anticipated health reform option papers. The proposals under consideration would make significant changes in the obligations of tax-exempt hospitals to provide charitable patient care, as well as changes in Medicare provider payments, beneficiary cost-sharing and taxability of employer-sponsored health benefits.

Charity Care Obligations of Tax-Exempt Hospitals

Tax-exempt hospitals could be required to do a periodic community needs analysis, provide minimum amounts of free care to the poor, not refuse services to patients who are unable to pay and adhere to restrictions in patient collection practices. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has justified these proposed new requirements because making health insurance coverage available to everyone should, in theory, minimize the amount of hospital uncompensated care. Under this proposal, in addition to revoking federal tax-exempt status, the Internal Revenue Service could impose significant excise taxes (intermediate sanctions) on exempt hospitals that fail to comply with these new requirements.

Payments to Providers and Drug Manufacturers

Medicare would propose “spending reductions in [regional] areas...above a certain threshold compared to the national average.” Medicare would reduce graduate medical education or disproportionate share payments. Physician payments could be tied to outcomes and productivity, and reduced by a panel of experts if determined to be “misvalued.” There would also be adjustments made to beneficiary cost-sharing, including a single annual maximum or other combined approach. Beneficiaries would also face higher Part D prescription drug premiums, perhaps based on income. Prescription drug makers could be subject to higher Medicaid rebate requirements. Home health agencies would also face significant reductions in their Medicare payments.

Taxability of Employer-Sponsored Health Benefits

Various proposals were advanced for eliminating deductions for, as well as taxing the value of, employee health benefits, for all or just higher-income taxpayers. The taxable amount could be the full value of the benefits or just their value above a benchmark basic plan such as the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

What’s at Stake

Tax-exempt hospitals may be required to provide substantial additional amounts of free and heavily discounted care to patients who cannot afford to pay, or risk punitive excise taxes. Providers and pharmaceutical companies would face a wide variety of payment adjustments, which are likely to be adverse in many if not most cases. Higher-income employees and perhaps all employees would face the elimination, in whole or in part, of the current tax exclusion for health benefits.

What You Should Do

  • Providers should consider submitting comments to the Committee by the May 26, 2009, deadline.
  • Tax-exempt hospitals should examine their current approaches to charitable patient care and consider the financial impact of being required to expand their current federally mandated emergency room services obligations to include non-emergency care.
  • Employers should carefully monitor taxable health benefits proposals and prepare to adapt to the elimination or reduction of the current tax exclusion.