Data Shows La Crosse’s Gundersen Hospital Is Most Profitable In U.S.

Hospital Officials Say New Report Doesn't Account For Entire Health System

Gundersen Health System hospital in La Crosse. Maureen McCollum/WPR

A new study reports Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse is the most profitable hospital in the country.

In an article published by the journal Health Affairs, researchers found Gundersen Lutheran made $302.5 million from patient care services in 2013, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. The numbers show seven of the top 10 most profitable hospitals in the nation, including Gundersen, were nonprofits.

But Dara Bartels, chief financial officer for Gundersen Health System, said profits from the La Crosse hospital support less profitable rural locations.

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“Many of the systems that were identified in the article were integrated health systems, which doesn’t always take into consideration all the entities that go into that strategy for the community,” Bartels said.

Gundersen has 20 locations in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Bartels said only looking at income from Gundersen Lutheran is like measuring a family’s financial status from one spouse.

“The primary breadwinner has the debt, the payments for the house under their name or social security number,” Bartels said. “But then if you would turn and look at the other spouse, the other spouse would look like it has money to play with per se.”

Dr. Ge Bai, an author of the study and an assistant professor of accounting at William and Lee University, said the data is reported by the hospitals themselves and therefore is telling of their financial situation.

“The reason (Centers for) Medicare and Medicaid Services ask hospitals to report this financial information is because they believe this reporting guideline can provide a justifiable base,” Bai said.

Bai said she agrees that nonprofit hospitals need to make a profit to sustain their organization. But she said organizations should be more transparent about how much they are charging for services and where that money is going.

“For-profit hospitals are incentivized to make money, that’s their primary goal. For nonprofit hospitals, the charitable mission is their primary goal,” Bai said. “These hospitals make a lot of money from their patient care services, then the nonprofit hospitals need to justify why they need to make so much money, why don’t they lower their price or whether they contribute it back to society.”