A nasty dispute between Advocate Health Care System and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is getting nastier, with Advocate suing the union for what it says are "defamatory" statements about Advocate's pricing and bill-collection practices.
Advocate, which runs a network of 10 hospitals in the Chicago area, claims the union released inaccurate reports about the hospital chain's prices to pressure Advocate into letting SEIU to organize its employees.
The hospital chain's lawsuit comes three months after a group of uninsured former patients sued Advocate, claiming they became mired in debt as a result of the chain's fees and aggressive bill collecting (ChicagoBusiness.com, Nov. 19, 2003). The class-action lawsuit followed reports SEIU published, stating Advocate inflates prices for uninsured patients and uses predatory collection practices when bills aren't paid on time.
Those allegations led a Senate panel, chaired by state Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, to investigate the system's prices and billing practices (ChicagoBusiness.com, Oct. 27, 2003). On Thursday, the panel advanced proposed legislation that would, among other things, require hospitals to treat uninsured patients at or below cost and to curb predatory collection practices.
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Oak Brook-based Advocate filed its suit against SEIU Feb. 6 in Cook County Circuit Court. Advocate spokesman Ed Domansky said the hospital chain hopes "to set the record straight."
Advocate is asking the court to prevent the SEIU from publishing any more reports about its pricing policies and to retract the reports already issued.
"Our purpose is to defend Advocate's integrity and to protect our legal rights," Mr. Domansky said. "Through the counterclaim we aim to correct misrepresentations about Advocate and our treatment of the uninsured."
Advocate's suit alleges the union's media campaign and appearances before the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board hearings to oppose some of Advocate's expansion plans are tactics to pressure the hospital system into accepting a neutrality agreement. Such an agreement would let the union campaign in the hospitals without comment from the system's management.
Joseph Geevarghese, an attorney and director of SEIU's Hospital Accountability Project, said Advocate's claims are "absolutely false" and the union will likely move to dismiss the counterclaim.
"Their lawsuit against us is a hardball tactic designed to silence us," he said. "Instead of spending money on legal fees they should make whole the patients they price-gouged."
SEIU and other unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFCSME) have launched campaigns around the country aiming to organize hospital employees.
The campaigns often use unconventional methods, such as issuing reports that call attention to a hospital's shortcomings, said Jarol B. Manheim, a professor of media and public affairs and of political science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who has researched union campaigns.
"Health care is a hot target right now because there is a very large number of non-union workers in hospitals," he said.
If the unionization drives succeed, hospitals that depend on legions of low-paid workers would be required to submit to new work rules, increased wage scales and higher staffing ratios. All of that is likely to raise the cost of health care at a time when employers, insurers and state and federal government are trying to lower it.
For more news, see Crain's Chicago Business.