Sometimes a houseplant will get too large for its clay pot. You don’t notice at first but it slows its growth as the roots circle sideways around and around in a futile strangle. Even in a new a new pot the roots will keep circling and hardly notice the new soil. Not really dead; a withered version of itself that lost the plot.
I’m talking about hospitals here, most of which were created a hundred years ago by faith and community groups who saw that the simple science of their time could benefit their communities by providing healing and justice at large scale. Hospitals were uncomplicated enough for church committees by the dozens to consider starting one with donations, led by pastors and nuns, linens sewn by congregations. Today, these roots circle inside massive brick pots, out-scaling every other local non-profit organization by a quantum; way beyond the capacities of pastors and nuns to keep them on task.
Non profit hospitals are supposed to be kept on mission by a legal tool called “community benefit,” which works about as well as a fig leaf in the Arctic. The idea of “benefit” dates from when “mission” meant giving away urgent care instead of the goal of community-scale well-being that health and social science now make possible. A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences makes the missed opportunity painfully clear (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2023. Population Health Funding and Accountability to Community: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/27258).
Kimberly DiGioia, a program officer at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, provided an overview of findings from her research on the effects of Medicaid expansion on community benefit (DiGioia, 2022). About two-thirds of hospitals in the U.S. are nonprofits, spending between 8 and 9 percent of their total operating expenses on community benefits, which seems impressive. But she explained that the vast majority of community benefit spending goes toward charity care, and unreimbursed Medicaid services while a small amount of this money goes to community health improvements. This includes educating its own health professionals, subsidized health services, medical research, and smallest portion, cash and in-kind contributions to community organizations.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act, DiGioia said, raised optimism that hospitals would report more revenue and less uncompensated care and thus spend more on community health. Indeed, the evidence has shown that the more Americans are covered, the more hospitals reported increased Medicaid discharges and decreased uninsured discharges. There was indeed a decline in uncompensated care, but this was offset by an increase in unreimbursed costs associated with caring for Medicaid patients. They charged more for less care and as a result, “community health improvement spending did not increase as expected.”
Instead of growing into the rich soil of community health science, health system roots just circled the pot. This is a failure of hospital governance and timid government policy, not lack of science or administrative skill. Boards never fire a CEO for bad community health; the government settles for health fairs and a mobile van.
Thousands of highly skilled administrators and staff came to the profession expecting to grow like an oak in deep soil (they don’t mention the pot in school). These are honorable people trapped in doing small things. At a recent medical school reception honoring TC and I, Dough Easterling reminded us of when we traveled across the country in a Winnebago testing the idea that “everything we hope for is already happening.” He quoted us back to ourselves:
“We traveled with the sharp awareness that we are among the privileged class, linked to institutions among the most privileged of all—academic medical centers. It is striking how little is asked of these vast organizations. In most every community the healthcare organizations are pretty much busy with running the hospital. The staff might be kind in the ER and diligent on its wards, but not likely to cross the sidewalk in solidarity with the poor and suffering. There are exceptions in every hospital, but as institutions, the expectations remain low for a reason.” (Road Trip, Stakeholder Health, 2019)
There are three ways to approach this withering, this tragic failure to fulfill our missional DNA.
One is to ramp up community benefit regulations. Not many hospitals have the internal capacity to know how to do that kind of work, so give local public health authorities power to get intimately involved in deploying hospital funds into serious programs of prevention, social determinants and chronic condition management. Don’t count “loss” on Medicaid and Medicare or training their own medical providers. The political screaming will be deafening as the ones that own the pots resist.
Two is to simply let non-profit hospitals remain inside their acute therapy pot, but give up the pretense that their efforts have much to do with community. Treat them like banks with some, but minimal, expectations of community good. Banks have to invest actual cash in the communities they previously damaged by redlining. Hospitals should do the same in the same communities as well as providing decent access for urgent services.
Third, create a special legal category for mission-driven hospitals. The 21st century work of advancing health at community scale needs a whole new pot. These hospitals would be like Community Health Centers (FQHC’s) that get preferential reimbursement for services that make them sustainable once they are built. Hospitals would need what they once had—preferential and protected access to borrowed capital so they could have modern technology. Treat them like missional utilities with no advertising permitted and community people on their governance Boards. True accountability is needed for meaningful integration with public health and social services, both governmental, private and faith. Restricted pay disparity between highest and lowest staff. Built for mission.
The National Academies report notes that Community Health centers offer much of this logic, but built for primary care, not acute hospital services. But why not? Every one of the major hospital systems have some hospitals they don’t actually want, that won’t ever make much money. Why not flip them to this different model?
We could do so much more with what we have. But our communities have almost given up:
Contrasted with the high enthusiasm when the hospitals were created, “the low expectations of (of hospitals) were striking—maybe for more health fairs, slightly kinder financial assistance policies, or free parking for clergy. We didn’t hear any calls for transformation, hardly any for solidarity. Yet those of us inside the institutions know how much more might be possible.” (Road Trip: Soundings. USA: Stakeholder Press, 2019).
We’ve been circling the pot. We need to break it, point the roots to deep soil and get to work.