Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Not-for-profit hospital systems increasingly operate more like corporate titans on the stock exchanges than the charities they promote themselves to be.

The big picture: As hospital systems have gotten larger, they have hosted more investor calls, released more financial data and attended more conferences and roadshows to attract banks and municipal debt buyers — all while health care spending continues to soar.

Where things stand: Almost 60% of community hospitals are private and nonprofit, and therefore don't pay income or property taxes. But hospitals are more on par with pharmaceutical giants and insurance companies than soup kitchens.

  • Most hospitals are part of larger systems after years of frenetic merger and acquisition activity.
  • Kaiser Permanente ranks just behind Johnson & Johnson in revenue — which would make it one of the 50 largest corporations in the country.
  • More than two dozen private, not-for-profit hospital systems would sit in the Fortune 500 rankings.

The intrigue: Hospitals that want to erect new buildings or buy new technology issue debt in municipal bond markets instead of the public markets. And more hospital systems "increasingly are trying to sell themselves to investors as they expand and become more complex to ensure they get the best rates when they borrow," the Wall Street Journal reported in 2016.

  • The 2008 financial meltdown led to more regulations for banks and investment firms in the municipal markets. As a result, those groups have been pushing for more disclosure and transparency from hospitals, said Eb LeMaster, a managing director at health care financial advisory firm Ponder & Co.
  • Hundreds of hospitals, ranging from small $100 million facilities to $20 billion behemoths, now regularly post financial documents and other data on municipal bond sites.

Yes, but: While transparency has increased, it's still not perfect.

  • CommonSpirit Health, the new hospital system that merged Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health, held an investor day in Chicago this week — an event normally conducted by companies trading on the public markets.
  • The investor day comes roughly a month before CommonSpirit executives will tour London, New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles to gin up interest in a $6 billion bond offering. That offering will include tax-exempt bonds, which the public subsidizes.
  • However, media were excluded from attending the investor day. A CommonSpirit spokesperson justified the policy by saying "it was important ... to provide information directly to those who have purchased the health system's bonds."

The bottom line: "Not-for-profit" does not mean "no profit."

  • Hospitals are swimming in cash, which has attracted investors to them. But hospitals' financial pursuits have raised concerns about whether they are continuing to chase revenue and inflate health care costs at the expense of patients.

Go deeper: How banks and law firms make millions from hospital debt

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