On April 8, 2016, the IRS released a private letter ruling denying tax-exempt status under Code section 501(c)(3) to an accountable care organization (“ACO”) that was not participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program (“MSSP”). PLR 201615022 (the “2016 PLR”) is the IRS’s first public written guidance on the tax-exempt status of ACO activities since 2011.
Since the MSSP became operational in 2012, it has been supported by a multi-agency effort to provide participants’ assurance that the application of existing laws and regulations governing tax-exempt status and permissible practices under the fraud and abuse laws would not be used against them. Recently, there has been increasing debate about whether the protected status that federal agencies have provided MSSP participants should also apply to ACOs in the private sector. In fact, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General addressed this issue in their joint issuance of the final rule discussing the waivers of fraud and abuse laws for MSSP ACO arrangements in October 2015. Now, with the 2016 PLR, the IRS has added its own views on the outer limits of protections for tax-exempt entities that create ACOs outside the MSSP.