The increased emphasis on community-wide benefits was mandated by the Affordable Care Act. The health law required hospitals that meet federal tax standards to be nonprofits to perform a community health needs assessment (CHNA) every three years, followed by implementing a strategy to deal with issues confronting the community, such as preventing violence or lowering the rates of diabetes.
A study released Monday in the journal Health Affairs shows spending in these areas has remained relatively stagnant.
The research showed average spending by tax-exempt hospitals on community benefits in 2010 was 7.6 percent of total operating costs and bumped to 8.1 percent by 2014. But the bulk of that spending goes toward unreimbursed patient care, such as charity care. The ACA was trying to spur more spending on broader community initiatives, which have remained below 1 percent of operating costs at the hospitals.
"This is not easy for hospitals to do," said Gary Young, the study's lead author and director of the Center for Health Policy and Healthcare Research at Northeastern University in Boston. "By tradition, by the nature of their resources, hospitals have not been oriented to prevention, they've been oriented to treatment."
New efforts by the Republican-led Congress may complicate the effort. The repeal last month of the ACA's penalties for most people who don't have health insurance has some experts questioning how some of these hospitals will be able to spend more on community benefits. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that because of that change about 13 million people would give up their coverage by 2027, which could drive up costs for hospitals because there would be more uninsured patients.
"Anything that destabilizes the system and takes money out of the hospitals' revenue stream is going to negatively impact them," said Gregory Tung, assistant professor at the University of Colorado's School of Public Health. "It's tough for hospitals to be navigating that uncertainty."
Jill Horwitz, professor of law at UCLA who specializes in health issues, said hospitals have trouble planning community efforts when they are unsure of their finances.
"It's a very difficult context in which to operate a stable system," Horwitz said. "One day to the next, it's hard to know what the rules are, what the reimbursement is going to be and what kind of insurance your patients will have."
More than half of the hospitals in the United States are private, nonprofit organizations that are tax-exempt.
Lawrence Massa, president & CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said the repeal of the ACA's individual mandate penalties will change hospitals' calculations.
"We certainly expect to see our uninsured rate go up as a result of repealing the individual mandate," he said, "so that's going to have an opposite type of effect of where we thought the trend was going to be because we changed the rules in the middle of the game."
But it's too early to tell how hospitals will respond, according to Massa. Many are still grappling with the new requirements.
The ACA was enacted in 2010, but the provision requiring community-based action did not come into effect until the end of March 2012, and enrollment in ACA marketplace plans didn't begin until 2014. Hospitals began early investments for assembling the needs assessments in 2011 and 2012, Massa said.
"In the later years, they'll be using that data and comparing and reporting to the IRS how they've changed their community benefits spending as a result of those community health needs assessments," he said. "If everything stayed the way it was, I think we would know by 2020 whether this had the kind of impact that was anticipated."
Young and his research colleagues acknowledged in their study that "certainly, more time is needed" to assess the full impact of the law's requirements on spending for community benefits.
Nonetheless, Young said, many hospitals lack the means to provide greater preventive care in the community.
They don't have the necessary infrastructure, "the personnel or the knowledge to develop those strategies," he said. "They don't have the resources to necessarily invest in those areas."
Horwitz agreed. "If we're going to require this high level of spending on community benefits and paying for patients who can't afford care, something else has to give," she said.