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Union sues 2 Conn. hospitals over use of free-care funds

Defendants call suit a labor tactic

The labor group that orchestrated last year's janitors strike in Boston filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing two Connecticut hospitals of illegally denying low-income patients free medical care, charging them higher rates, and attaching their wages when they couldn't pay.

 

The allegations are the focus of a class-action suit filed in New Haven Superior Court by Service Employees International Union 1199 -- New England, part of the 1.5 million-member group that launched an aggressive union-organizing drive in Boston that led 2,000 of the area's 10,700 janitors to strike for more pay and healthcare coverage.

The SEIU has launched organizing campaigns at nursing homes, hospitals, and healthcare centers across the country.

The lawsuit alleges that Yale-New Haven Hospital and Bridgeport Hospital violated a state law requiring that hospitals inform patients of the existence of "free-care funds" for low-income individuals and families.

The suit also alleges that uninsured patients were charged up to 50 percent more for treatment at the two hospitals than insured patients.

New Haven attorney Dan Livingston, who represents the SEIU, estimated the size of the free-care funds at Yale-New Haven and Bridgeport hospitals at $30 million and $8 million, respectively. He said the suit, if certified as a class action, would be pressed on behalf of about 10,000 low-income patients. The suit also names Yale-New Haven Health Services Corp., the parent of both institutions.

"We're asking the court to vacate all previous judgments against the plaintiffs and other members of the class, to release them from the obligation to pay at the hospital's established rates, and to award compensatory as well as punitive damages and attorney's fees and costs," Livingston said.

"We're also asking that the court appoint an independent board of trustees to oversee all free bed funds administered by the hospitals."

Vin Petrini, senior vice president of public affairs at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said the SEIU has been trying to organize 1,800 hospital employees at his institution and is using the suit to pressure management into allowing the workers to join simply by signing union cards, rather than participating in an election.

In recent years, unions have shied away from elections. They maintain that employers often retaliate by threatening to fire, suspend, or demote workers who participate in union organizing campaigns and elections.

"This is a tactic that is part of an orchestrated campaign by the union to secure representation at the hospital," said Petrini. "It is a way of pressuring Yale-New Haven into recognizing the union without having to hold a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. We recognize and respect employees' rights to seek union representation, but we are absolutely committed to an election process that will ensure a confidential ballot."

Petrini said the hospital recently reviewed 11,000 outstanding accounts and found 868 that could have qualified for free care. He said the hospital closed those accounts and eliminated the debt. The hospital's threshold for eligibility for the funds was also increased to 250 percent of the poverty level, or an annual salary of $46,000 for a family of four.

Bridgeport Hospital spokesman John Cappiello said the hospital provided more than $20 million worth of medical care to uninsured and underinsured individuals in fiscal 2003 and has always posted signs about the availability of free care. "We even publish a notice in the newspaper advertising that the funds are available and people are welcome to apply," he said.

Bill Meyerson, the SEIU's communications organizer, denied the union was using the lawsuit to pressure Yale-New Haven. He said Local 1199 sued after talking to low-wage workers about the hospital's billing practices.

"This did not start off as part of our union organizing campaign," he said. "Workers who were interested in forming a union came to us and told us about it."

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at dlewis@globe.com.

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