The battle raged on yesterday against the debt collection methods used by Yale-New Haven Hospital, at a rally that brought together community members and public officials. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. joined Hamden Mayor Carl Amento and West Haven Mayor Richard Borer in urging the hospital administration to change its policies.

About 40 people stood outside the hospital as the three mayors, along with several former patients in debt to Yale-New Haven, decried the various methods used by the hospital to collect payment. DeStefano specifically targeted the hospital’s placement of liens against patients’ homes and garnisheeing wages, or taking a fixed amount, from a patient’s salary.

“One of the fundamental ways to build wealth in our society is to own a home,” DeStefano said. “So too is fairness a fundamental value of our society. We don’t provide healthcare to make it impossible for people to live in their homes.”

William Gedge, the senior vice president of Yale-New Haven, said the hospital made significant changes in debt collection policies three months ago. Gedge said the changes adopted last August removed 2,300 of the 2,500 property liens that were placed over the last 10 years.

“The debt has not been removed, but the lien has,” Gedge said in a press release. “We also announced that the hospital would no longer initiate any foreclosures on houses, a legal process that was started 40 times over the last 10 years. Contrary to what has been said, no homes were ever taken by Yale-New Haven Hospital.”

Gedge contrasted those figures with the approximately 400,000 accounts the hospital deals with each year. He said Yale-New Haven Hospital maintains that the people who really need free health care do receive it.

“Individuals below two and one-half times the poverty level that are uninsured and denied Medicaid receive free care,” Gedge said in a press release.

The hospital has a “free bed fund” that ensures treatment for patients who meet this standard. But a recent lawsuit filed by six Yale Law School students on behalf of low-income former Yale-New Haven Hospital patients claims that the hospital has been reluctant to inform patients of this option.

Mayor Amento said that by placing liens on houses, the hospital is failing in its duty to provide healthcare to the community as a non-profit, tax-exempt institution.

“The other hospitals across the country aren’t doing this, the other hospitals in Connecticut aren’t doing this,” Amento said.

But Gedge said he disagreed, and that this is a national issue due to the poor state of healthcare in America. He said Yale-New Haven should not be targeted exclusively.

“Hospitals are unlike any other business,” Gedge said. “Patients are only asked to pay after they receive care. All hospitals around the country are faced with how to get people to pay who have the ability to pay.”

Gedge also said the hospital would be doing a “disservice” to its paying patients by not collecting debts from those patients that have the ability to pay, but who choose not to.

“The discussion should be focused on individuals who truly have the ability to pay, but refuse,” Gedge said.

But some patients said they felt the hospital had been too harsh in its collection procedures.

Patient Delisa Tolson said the hospital took $3,000 from her through garnisheeing her wages, when her expenses should have been covered. Tolson got the crowd going with a litany of rhyming grievances against the hospital.

“How dare you [Yale-New Haven Hospital] freeze my account by your amount,” Tolson said.

While hospital officials discussed the difficulty in assessing a patient’s financial ability to pay, DeStefano said this is a larger issue.

“What this is about is using power against the powerless,” DeStefano said. “It’s not the medical care they have to get over, it’s the power.”

The lawsuit filed by the Yale Law School students and a suit filed in February by the Connecticut attorney general are currently pending against the hospital. Both suits claim the hospital did not properly educate patients about the availability of free bed funds.

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