Georgia offers tax break for giving to hospitals

In this Telegraph file photo from 2002, a patient goes to Monroe County Hospital.
In this Telegraph file photo from 2002, a patient goes to Monroe County Hospital.

In season of gift-giving, Georgia is encouraging gifts to rural hospitals.

The reason: a lot of these healing institutions are themselves ailing, financially.

Georgia will soon open a deal to individuals and to corporations: donate money to a qualifying rural hospital and get a state tax credit worth up to 70 percent of the value of the donation.

Doctors, nurses, up-to-date buildings, whizbang imaging machines and emergency rooms cost a lot of money. And not every patient brings in enough cash or insurance to cover costs. Plenty of rural hospitals struggle to break even while serving patients well.

“In a place like Monroe County, they’re probably looking at half a million dollars a year in uncompensated care,” said Darren Pearce, a Navicent Health executive whose titles include interim chief administrative officer at Monroe County Hospital.

The 25-bed Monroe County Hospital is ranked fifth in the state for financial need, among the 49 that qualified for the Rural Hospital Tax Credit, according to the Georgia Department of Community Health. The department looked at each hospital’s indigent caseload, ratio of assets to liabilities and other financial information to make the ranking.

The hospitals in Crisp, Dodge, Putnam, Taylor, and Upson counties also made the list.

“What keeps me up at night is making sure, keeping current … on what you owe vendors, stuff like that. Making sure that facilities are still running,” said Pearce.

Chuck Adams, executive vice president of the Georgia Hospital Association, has a list of needs he’s hearing from rural hospitals. For example, many of them inhabit decades-old buildings and haven’t had the cash to do major updates and renovations.

“A lot of our hospitals are incurring extra costs just, kind of patching those buildings together,” said Adams.

Some Georgia hospitals are also eyeballing new equipment, more staff or more services. Computers and software need regular updates, too.

It’s up to donors, not the state, to decide which hospitals get the donations, but there are limits. Georgia will cap the tax credits at a total $180 million over three years. And no one hospital can receive more than $4 million in the special tax-deductible donations per year.

Adams said even a few hundred thousand dollars would be a game changer for some hospitals. The majority of rural hospitals in the GHA post negative margins, or break even at best, he said.

“We got some hospitals that I’m confident that without this lifeline, they might not make it those three years,” said Adams.

A handful of rural Georgia hospitals have closed in the last few years. And when a hospital closes, it affects the economic health of a community too. It’s harder to convince businesses to move to a place if it’s a long drive from specialist doctors and emergency rooms.

Pearce said that with some more money, the Monroe County Hospital might look at getting updated bedside equipment into nurses’ hands, for example. But he’s also looking at both sides of the balance sheet: the cash that’s coming in, but also the cash that’s going out. Hospitals need to make sure they’re being as efficient as they can, he said.

Earlier this year, business leaders and elected officials formed Rural Healthcare 180, a task force that’s promoting the tax credit and will work on helping hospitals develop financial plans that are sustainable.

State Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, represents Monroe County, and said in a recent editorial that he will be helping with Rural Healthcare 180’s work.

“With the rural hospital tax credit, your contribution will truly make a difference for hospitals and for all the people who are treated there, whether they are mothers giving birth, children receiving stiches, or those suffering from the most traumatic life-threatening ailments,” Kennedy wrote.

Would-be donors must first apply for the tax break via the Georgia Tax Center website. The process is set to begin January 3.

The state program comes at a moment when hospitals nationwide are looking with concern to Washington, D.C., and the growing momentum for a repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare.”

Since Obamacare went into effect, a greater share of Americans have gotten health insurance and hospitals have come to expect fewer uninsured patients. But Obamacare critics say the system drives up costs and drives down choice and want it gone.

If Obamacare is repealed without setting up replacement insurance plans for its customers, major national hospital trade groups are urging a restoration of federal funds that were trimmed to help pay for the ACA in the first place.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee