Suit challenges hospitals’ debt collection practices

A suit was filed late last week against Yale New-Haven and Bridgeport Hospitals, alleging their debt collection procedures violate medical debt collection protections adopted by the Connecticut General Assembly in October 2003.

The suit was filed by 11 plaintiffs with the support of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199, which represents 150 workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The suit is seeking class-action status on behalf of patients in similar situations at the hospitals.

The new measure, authored by state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven, governs the use of “free-bed funds,” meant to pay the medical bills of patients at or below 250 percent of the poverty level, and provides patient protection against debt collection until their eligibility for aid has been assessed by the hospital.

A similar class-action suit was filed Dec. 16, accusing Bridgeport and Yale-New Haven Hospitals of failing to inform low-income patients about free-bed funds.

SEIU attorney Dan Livingston said the December suit sought compensation for patients who would have been eligible for free-bed funds but were still subject to debt collection, the new suit is an injunction against hospital debt collection procedures — a preemptive move to save patients the stress of debt-collection proceedings until their eligibility has been determined.

“[The new law] makes sure debtors who may be eligible for free-bed funds or reduced charges are left alone by the hospital, until the hospital does its statutory job of determining their eligibility — and the hospital has been outright ignoring that,” Livingston said. “We can’t sit around and wait for a ruling from a judge that says [debtors] should have been left alone two years ago. That’s why we filed the injunction now.”

Also pending is a suit filed last February by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, accusing the hospital of billing patients who were eligible for free-bed funds.

Yale-New Haven Hospital provided $100 million in free and under-billed care in the last two years, including $2.5 million of hospital operating dollars last year. Hospital spokesman Vincent Petrini said the hospital has continued to show support for low-income patients.

“To the best of our ability, we’ve tried to follow the intent, letter and spirit of current legislation,” Petrini said. “We’ve done a lot to show our commitment to the uninsured and under-insured.”

Petrini said the current lawsuit is a part of District 1199’s continuing “corporate campaign,” mobilizing media, religious and political outlets to attack the hospital in order to push for unionization.

“The lawsuit is consistent with an SEIU labor union strategy to use litigation as a publicity tool to criticize the hospital,” Petrini said. “They are intent as creating an environment as negative as possible with which to further unionize 1,800 workers.”

John Cappiello, the spokesman for Bridgeport Hospital, said their hospital has recently altered billing practices to better aid those unable to pay their bills and provides a Connecticut state employee to speak with all patients about funds available from the state.

“Changes we made last year to our billing and collection policy are designed to show greater compassion towards patients who cannot afford to pay their medical bills, but these changes allow us to move forward and collect payment from patients who are able to pay,” Cappiello said.

Cappiello said Bridgeport Hospital provided $20 million in care to people who were uninsured or under-insured in the community last year.

He added that Bridgeport Hospital is included in the suit because it is a member of the Yale-New Haven Health System, of which Yale-Hew Haven Hospital is also a member. Cappiello cited the unionization drive at the hospital as a possible factor in the suit.

“Bridgeport is a partner in the same corporate health system, and that is why we at Bridgeport have been pulled into this union campaign,” Cappiello said.

The difficulties of funding health care extend beyond New Haven. In December, the American Hospital Association, which advocates on behalf of 5,000 hospitals around the nation, said that it would provide recommendations for hospitals on how to make care more affordable for low-income patients and how to offer more innovative payment programs.

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