A law written partly because of debt collection practices at Yale-New Haven Hospital took effect this week, requiring Connecticut hospitals to change the way they charge poor patients.
The act, which was signed into law in July, requires hospitals to provide more information about programs designed to give free or reduced-cost care to poor patients. The new law also caps the interest rate hospitals can charge patients who take on debt in order to receive care, while preventing hospitals from collecting more than the cost of care from the uninsured.
Yale-New Haven has been criticized in the past for aggressively pursuing unpaid debts and for misusing “sick bed funds” designed to provide free care. In February, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sued the hospital for restricting access to the sick bed funds and for trying to collect debts from patients who had been improperly charged.
But hospital spokesman Mark D’Antonio said the new law would not significantly change the hospital’s practices.
“We were in the middle of reviewing our billing practices far before the bill went into effect,” D’Antonio said. “The bill comes after we’ve already instituted a lot of changes, so the bill is really just a formality.”
On Wednesday, union supporters, law students and others distributed a pamphlet at the hospital called “Got Hospital Debt? Know Your Rights,” designed to ensure that patients are aware of the legal changes. Union spokesman Bill Meyerson said the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a nonprofit group associated with Yale’s unions, created the pamphlet in part because the hospital had a history of “violating the law.”
“The hospital has been negligent with regards to training their staff,” Meyerson said. “That is why, in part, they are being sued by the Attorney General’s office.”
Following the distribution of the pamphlets, the hospital issued a statement saying CCNE’s efforts were driven by an ulterior motive: its desire to unionize workers at the hospital. A union representing about 150 dietary workers has sought to organize another 1,800 employees at the hospital.
“Yale-New Haven Hospital staff regularly provide patients who do not have insurance with information about free care and offer individual counseling to patients who ask for help,” the statement read. “The unions that developed this document have a different agenda — to organize a large number of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s employees.”
Meyerson said the efforts to organize workers at the hospital and to call attention to its debt collection practices were not unrelated.
“The issue is about accountability,” Meyerson said. “The hospital administration and board has been unaccountable when members of the community tried to come to them and asked about this medical debt. They were not accountable when they arrested workers for handing out leaflets in front of the place where they worked. And they have been unaccountable when their own employees said they wanted to have a part in making changes at the hospital.”
In addition to requiring hospitals to better publicize their sick bed funds, the new law creates more state oversight for the administration of the funds. It also requires hospitals to immediately discontinue collection efforts for patients who would have been eligible for free care, while limiting the interest rate charged on most hospital loans to five percent.
State Rep. Patricia Dillon, who introduced a bill that was largely incorporated in the final act, said union supporters, among others, had been very supportive of efforts to reform hospital debt practices. But she said it did not matter who supported the reforms as long as they fixed some of the problems poor patients were facing.
“I don’t really care who the messenger is if the facts are right,” said Dillon, a New Haven Democrat.