By KIM GRAY

In my 12 years of public service to the people of Richmond, I have interacted with countless families and individuals who face barriers to accessing quality health care. Too many of our neighbors – homeless people, students with disabilities, seniors on fixed incomes and others – are underserved and often left without care.

Correction: An earlier version of this column had an incorrect post that reported on the University of Virginia health system and lawsuits. This version has been corrected.For residents of Church Hill and the surrounding area, the non-profit Richmond Community Hospital has traditionally served as a lifeline – figuratively and sometimes literally. Since 1907, it has provided charitable care to the predominantly black community. Today, I am very concerned that the community of Richmond seems to be reducing its workforce and the services it offers. What will happen to indigent and underinsured patients in the East End?

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A disturbing report from The New York Times suggests that Richmond Community’s parent company has cut services at the hospital while investing in facilities in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs. A doctor, looking back on its past glory, called the community of Richmond a ‘glorified emergency room’ today.

Many people in Jackson Ward, where I live, are served by Richmond Community. And the families and children I work with in the East End also depend on it for their healthcare needs. This hospital is important to the people I love.

The Times story shows how nonprofit hospitals often take advantage of their tax-exempt status and other benefits to generate huge profits without always reinvesting them and providing community benefits and charitable care.

Nonprofit hospitals pay no federal or state taxes. In return, they’re supposed to spend about 5% of patients’ income on charity care, usually free or heavily discounted. Business-savvy CEOs have realized that this requirement has little enforcement at the federal level and have either been misleadingly creative about what “community benefit” means or, in many cases, have ignored the requirement altogether. Consider the Sentara Healthcare family of hospitals. Sentara operates 12 nonprofit charitable hospitals in Virginia. Only one, Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center, meets the 5% requirement. The rest is far away.

Elsewhere, Kaiser Health News reported on problems within the University of Virginia health system, which filed 36,000 lawsuits totaling $106 million over a six-year period against patients who were unable to pay for the health services they received. The Washington Post investigation found that the UVa sued many people even before informing them that they were eligible for discounted or free care. It’s not charity care by any definition I know.

It’s not just a Virginia problem, of course. Stories of charitable hospitals not serving their communities are growing across the country. It makes you wonder – have some of the people who entered the medical field to save lives gone astray, blinded by big profits?

The nonprofit hospital system needs significant reform. Patients, taxpayers and public servants deserve more oversight, transparency and accountability. In the meantime, I believe in actions, not words, and I hope Richmond Community Hospital will step back, step in to do what’s right, and fully serve the people of this part of town with health care. High quality.

Kim Gray is a former City Council and School Board member representing Richmond’s 2nd District.

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