Monday, May 11, 2009

IRS Changes Form 990 to Make Not-for-Profit Organizations More Transparent and Accountable

In the US, many important health care organizations are not-for-profit organizations. Many US medical schools, and other health educational institutions, along with their parent universities are not-for-profit. (Essentially all the exceptions are supported by local or state government.) The majority of US hospitals and hospital systems, including academic medical centers, are not-for-profit. Some managed care organizations are not-for-profit. Medical and professional societies, health care advocacy groups, health care charities, and a variety of other groups are not-for-profit.

Not-for-profit health care organizations here have hardly been immune from leadership and governance problems. We have discussed numerous instances of ill-informed, conflicted, and even corrupt leadership of these organizations, and underlying problems with their governance, which may be unrepresentative of key constituencies, unaccountable, secretive and opaque, and not subject to clear ethical rules.

There may be some major changes coming, however, affecting leadership and governance of all US not-f0r-profit organizations, including health care organizations. The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has long required that not-for-profits that exceed certain minimums file and make publicly available certain information on a form 990. Relatively recent forms from most US not-for-profits are available online from The old forms provided for some minimal transparency. They displayed, for example, a list of the filing not-for-profit organization's trustees, and the salaries and retirement plans given to their five highest-paid employees.

The IRS has revised the forms starting with those to be filed in 2009, which will reflect 2008 data, so as to markedly increase organizational transparency. The actual forms can be found on this IRS web-page, and a discussion of key points can be found here on the web-site.

For the first time, the forms will include information about certain aspects of leadership and governance.

Leadership Conflicts of Interest

The new form 990 will require each organization to establish the "independence" of the organizations' trustees, directors, officers, and key employees. Independent individuals would be those without any direct or indirect business relationships with the not-for-profit organization; without any relatives with such business relationships; and who were not serving as an officer, director, trustee, key employee, partner, or member of an organization doing business with the not-for-profit organization. The relationships preventing individuals from being independent would have to be documented.

It is likely that perusal of such information on the new form 990 would reveal to some extent the degree the organization's leaders are conflicted. Up to now, it has been very difficult to get information about conflicts affecting the leadership of health care organizations. We have reported numerous cases of seemingly high-level conflicts affecting leaders of not-for-profit health care organizations. It is likely that such conflicts affect the ability and inclination of leaders to uphold their organization's mission, that is, to fulfill their duty of obedience.

Leadership Compensation

The new form 990 will ask for detailed information about the total compensation given to officers, directors, and trustees, key and the five most highly paid employees, and former officers, directors, trustees, key and most highly compensated employees who continued to receive substantial amounts. This will include not only reportable and other compensation, but whether anyone received unusual compensation such as first-class or charter travel, companion travel, tax indemnification for gross-up payments, discretionary spending accounts, housing allowance or residence for personal use, payments for business use of personal residence, health or social club dues or fees, and personal services (e.g., maid, chauffeur, chef). Also, the form inquires about severance packages and supplemental non-qualified retirement plans.

Up to now, little information about the compensation of not-for-profit leaders beyond base salaries, contributions to employee benefit plans and deferred compensation, and expense allowances and the like was available. Clearly, while not reaching the stratospheric levels enjoyed by top leaders of for-profit health care corporations, some leaders of not-for-profit health care organizations have come to be paid enough to make them rich. It is possible that some now regard their positions as first a pathway to wealth, rather than a calling to improve the health of society, or to advance medical education or science. Furthermore, it is possible that some leaders have been receiving additional compensation which has made them even more wealthy, while particular "perks," like staffed houses, chauffeured cars, and first-class travel, has isolated them from the patients, clients, and/or students they are supposed to be serving.

Organizational Policies

The new form 990 will ask whether the organization has a written conflict of interest policy, and if so, how compliance is monitored and enforced, and a written policy to protect whistle blowers.


In my humble opinion, the IRS' new form 990 could make substantial improvements to the transparency and accountability of not-for-profit health care organizations. Review of form 990's filed starting this year could provide important information about conflicts of interest affecting organizational leaders, whether they have been distracted by new-found wealth, or decoyed by luxurious perks, and whether their organizations have clear policies meant to maintain certain ethical standards.

However, while the IRS will mandate that such information becomes available, it is not clear what it will do about the information so revealed. Additionally, the wealth of information that will be provided could easily bury the few watchdogs, including the Health Care Renewal bloggers, that have been trying to monitor the governance and leadership of health care organizations.

However, the new information provides an important opportunity to other people concerned about these issues. For example, perhaps some health professionals have concerns about how their alma maters are lead and governed. Maybe they will peruse the new information provided, and then try to use it to make their alma maters more accountable. It is at least possible to be optimistic.

What Is to Be Done?

If you are concerned about a particular not-for-profit health care organization, you can prepare for the availability of more information from the revised form 990 in several ways, by searching for already publicly available information. You can peruse older form 990s, which at least provides the names of trustees and officers, and officers' and key employees' salaries.

In addition, the web makes it possible to identify some conflicts of interest affecting current leadership. For example, try first entering each leader's name, surrounded by quotes, into Google, to look for biographical information that could reveal conflicts. Next, try searching on the name plus terms like "board of directors," "board of trustees," "consultant," or "advisory board," which may uncover some additional conflicts. If you find anything of concern, consider making it more public.

Remember, the best way to improve health care leadership is to hold it accountable to an activated public, preferably strongly infused with health care professionals who want to uphold their professionalism.

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