Hospital Hosts On-Site Legal Aid Services

John Commins, April 20, 2011

Saint Luke's Hospital of Kansas City has launched a partnership with Legal Aid of Western Missouri that puts an attorney and a paralegal inside the hospital to help indigent patients address legal issues adversely impacting their health.

Legal Aid began its first medical-legal partnership in Kansas City in 2007, but the Saint Luke's partnership is the first to use legal staff working full-time at a medical site. Amber Cutler, an attorney with Legal Aid, said that has been critical to the success of the four-month-old project.

"On site is best, not only because we are more accessible to the patients, but because we are more visible," Cutler says. "The referrers on staff forget we are here if we aren't on site. If they are seeing you, your presence reminds them 'Oh yeah, we have that resource that we can refer these people to.' It's a critical component."

Bonnie Johnson, RN, an attorney and director of risk management at Saint Luke's, said having an attorney or a paralegal inside the hospital walls also improves patient relations and expedites the discharge process

"If they're here on staff, any time there is a consult for the medical-legal partnership, they can go directly to the patient's room, start building that trusting relationship during the intake interview and talk about what their obstacles and issues are," Johnson says. "That has been a great distinction from some of the other medical-legal partnerships that have popped up across the country."

Nationally, medical-legal partnerships for indigent patients have been around since 1993. MLPs integrate lawyers into the healthcare team to help patients deal with legal problems that directly or indirectly harm their health. The programs have been endorsed by the American Hospital Association, American Bar Association, American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. The Saint Luke's MLP is funded by a $150,000 annual grant awarded by the hospital's foundation.

Johnson says the Legal Aid staff handles a variety of concerns. That includes helping indigents sign up for Medicaid, establish legal guardians, find housing, and address safety issues such as domestic violence or mold in the home that could trigger adverse health events necessitating care in the emergency department.

John Commins

John Commins is a senior editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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