LMH to study program that would provide free legal assistance to low-income patients

A good attorney may come in handy for those who also want to have good health. Lawrence Memorial Hospital leaders, at least, want to study the idea further.

LMH board of trustee members have agreed to consider a potential partnership with the Kansas University law school that would allow low-income patients at the hospital to have access to free legal professionals who could help solve problems that may be impacting a patient’s health.

“It is another way of trying to help patients get healthy,” John Bullock, a member of the LMH board of trustees and a proponent of the program, said at a recent LMH board meeting.

How an attorney can help resolve a medical issue, though, may take a little explanation. Bullock gave the example of an asthma patient who is living in substandard housing. The housing conditions may be aggravating the asthma condition, but it may take some legal intervention for the patient to get his landlord to make the necessary improvements to the housing.

The KU law school has a similar program — called a medical-legal partnership — with the KU Medical Center. It provided legal advice for 121 cases in 2013, including providing getting an order of protection for a domestic violence victim, end of life planning services for an early-stage Alzheimer’s patient, and several other types of cases, according to a report provided to the LMH board.

The idea of medical-legal partnerships has been catching on in the health care industry, board members were told. A large part of the idea is that people will become healthier if their personal environment is improved, but that sometimes requires legal action.

“There are cases where a patient comes to the emergency room and we keep treating the same problem, and they go back to the same environment that creates the same problem, and we end up treating them again,” said Rob Chestnut, chair of the hospital’s board.

Board members directed LMH staff members to do more research about how large of a population may use such a service at LMH. Patients would be required to meet certain income guidelines, and some legal issues — such as criminal representation — would be off-limits.

Gene Meyer, president and CEO of LMH, said he thinks a program could operate for less than $100,000 a year, assuming one part-time staff attorney who would oversee advanced law school students.

Board members, though, still have questions they want answered. Allen Belot, a member of the LMH board, said he could envision concerns about an LMH attorney becoming involved in local landlord-tenant issues, for example. He said he also wanted to make sure that the hospital wouldn’t face any liability by offering the service.

It likely will be a few more months before board members are asked to make a decision on whether to start the program, but board members said they want to keep the idea moving forward.

“I tend to be someone who scrutinizes numbers and budgets, but I want us to continue to consider this,” Chestnut said. “Strategically we are committed to providing a system of care. More and more we’re going to have to reach outside the four walls of the LMH campus to serve our community with a system of care.”