In the latest sign of strained relations between the two groups, the hospital worker’s union has filed a class action lawsuit against the Yale-New Haven Health Care System concerning its debt collection policies.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 16 in Superior Court, accuses Bridgeport and Yale-New Haven Hospitals of failing to inform low-income patients about “free-bed funds,” which are meant to pay the medical bills of patients with incomes at or below 250 percent of the poverty level.

The class action suit against the hospital comes amid recommendations by the national hospital industry for fairer billing and collection practices in hospitals. On Dec. 17, the American Hospital Association, which advocates on behalf of 5,000 hospitals around the nation, announced that it would be providing guidelines to hospitals on how to make care more affordable for low-income patients and offer more innovative payment programs.

Hospital workers have been without contracts since their previous contracts expired in late August. Following unsuccessful negotiating sessions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199, which represents approximately 140 hospital employees, went on a three-week strike along with members of Yale’s two largest unions, locals 34 and 35, who have since reached new contracts.

The hospital has filed various complaints about union conduct with the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. For months, the union has been publicizing dissatisfaction with hospital debt collection practices, which include placing liens against underinsured and uninsured patients’ houses.

Union spokesman Bill Meyerson said the suit seeks the reimbursement of hospital patients for a variety of financial issues.

“Patients should be reimbursed for damages done to their credit rating,” Meyerson said. “There were liens placed on their homes — they were forced to pay when they were not required to, as eligible for the free-bed funds.”

If the legal action is certified as a class action suit by a judge, SEIU lawyer Dan Livingston said the suit may be filed on behalf of up to 10,000 low-income patients.

The union is also asking the hospital to establish an independent board of directors to oversee the administration of these funds.

“The current administration has shown it’s neither willing or able to accord with the law,” Meyerson said.

Hospital spokesperson Vin Petrini said the suit is part of a “corporate campaign” waged by the union, using media, religious and political outlets to attack the hospital, to inspire further unionization at the hospital.

“It’s consistent with actions taken to pressure organizations by threatening to undercut their reputation,” Petrini said.

The hospital maintains that it informs patients of the availability of the free-bed funds, and remains devoted to patient care. In 2003, Yale-New Haven spent $59.5 million caring for its uninsured and underinsured patients, according to statements made by hospital officials.

“The hospital has created one of the innovative and comprehensive programs for providing access for patients regardless of their ability to pay,” Petrini said. “Our commitment to the uninsured and underinsured is remarkably strong.”

Bridgeport Hospital spokesperson John Cappiello said there are no unionization drives at Bridgeport, and they are simply included in the suit because they are members of the Yale-New Haven Health System.

“There is [no move to unionize] whatsoever, that we’re aware of,” Cappiello said. “We think the connection comes in that we’re a member of the Yale-New Haven Health System, along with Yale-New Haven Hospital.”

Petrini also said the union is pressuring the hospital to recognize the union without the standard practice of a secret ballot election supervised by the NLRB. Employers have the option of recognizing the union without the vote.

Petrini said Yale-New Haven insists on the secret ballot in order to protect employees from intimidation.

“What the union is trying to do here, and other places, is pressure employers to accept an alternate approach that would not guarantee the vote,” Petrini said. “We believe in doing it in a way in which rights are not waived.”

No plans have been made for future negotiating sessions between the union and hospital officials.