Six Yale Law School students are filing law suits on behalf of low-income former Yale-New Haven Hospital patients as part of the Law School’s legal clinics program.
The suits allege that the hospital has practiced aggressive debt collection against uninsured and underinsured area patients who should have been informed of the existence of the hospital’s multi-million dollar “free bed fund,” which covers the medical bills of patients with incomes at or below 250 percent of the poverty level.
The hospital’s debt-collection procedures include placing liens against patients’ homes, garnisheeing — or taking a fixed amount of debtors’ wages — and seizing assets. Approximately 10,000 former patients are currently in debt to the hospital, Dana Goldblatt LAW ’05, one of the law students involved in the suits, said.
The law students said they are negotiating for relief for all the debtors who could have qualified for the free bed fund, but will consider filing a class action lawsuit against the hospital if these negotiations break down.
Jennifer Sung LAW ’04 said she and the other students decided to file the suits after learning of the hospital’s failure to alleviate poor patients’ financial burdens.
“What’s really outrageous is that the hospital has the resources to provide care through the free bed fund,” Sung said.
Patients were referred to the students’ legal clinic by Service Employees International Union researcher Grace Rollins, who recently completed an extensive study on liens through the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, an organization with strong ties to Yale’s unions. Rollins’ study found that hospitals in the Yale-New Haven Health System practice the most aggressive debt collection of any hospitals in Connecticut.
SEIU District 1199 represents approximately 140 dietary workers at the hospital and is currently trying to unionize more workers at the hospital. But District 1199 is not involved in the suits.
Hospital spokeswoman Katie Krauss said the basis for the law students’ cases comes from the CCNE report, but said she doubts the legal actions will result in a class action suit and does not believe the students have the grounds to file one.
The hospital maintains it has appropriately informed patients of the availability of the free bed fund and attempts to distinguish between those who are “unable” and those who are “simply unwilling” to pay, Krauss said.
“Yale-New Haven Hospital communicates clearly with patients about free bed funds, and has signs posted in English and Spanish,” Krauss said in an e-mail. “When patients are admitted, they sign a form acknowledging their financial status, which includes a notice of available free care, and a financial counselor works with each patient.”
The law students’ first priority is to force the hospital to reimburse their clients, Goldblatt said. She said she hopes wider changes to the hospital’s debt collection policy will follow negotiations or a possible class action suit.
“[Relief] would mean giving [people] their money back and forgiving future debt,” Goldblatt said.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 filed a similar suit against the hospital in February. The suit alleges that the hospital billed needy patients for services that should have been covered by the free bed fund. Blumenthal said he supports the action taken by the law students.
“From what I know of Yale Law School students, [their suit] mirrors the claims we have made, which we believe are well-founded,” Blumenthal said.
Krauss said the hospital has already begun to make its debt collection procedures more lenient by closing over 800 accounts, changing their debt-collection attorneys and increasing the amount of debt necessary for a lien to be placed on patient property. Krauss said the hospital has also stopped initiating foreclosure proceedings against debtors’ homes.