Since 1969 federal tax policy has permitted nonprofit hospitals to turn away indigent patients or to transfer them to public hospitals. The Internal Revenue Service made health policy, but its officials remain convinced that they were not making policy at all. Convinced that it was reasoning from legal principles, the Revenue Service accepted the hospital industry's view of the history and purpose of hospitals. The federal courts further obscured the problem. Moreover, the Revenue Service took no interest in the effects of its ruling on the services provided by tax-exempt hospitals until 1989. We describe these events and seek to explain them by linking the recent history of health policy to the assumptions that govern the making of tax policy. We conclude that the making of health policy by tax officials who are not accountable for it and who believe that they are not making policy at all is not in the public interest.

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