A lack of legal support causes problems for some Virginians.
BLACKSBURG – Good health doesn’t just come from having access to healthcare. Several groups are using a different option to help treat Southwest Virginians. Instead of focusing exclusively on healthcare, the program seeks to increase access to legal assistance. According to members, this access leads to better healthcare and overall healthier patients in the Appalachian Highlands.
Ballad Health is partnering with the Appalachian School of Law (ASL) and Virginia Tech to provide this service. A collaboration between law and medical experts, the goal is to help the most vulnerable Virginians. The three organizations formed a Medical Legal Partnership, or MLP. And together they will provide one-on-one, free legal assistance to those in need.
“It brings together the triune synergies of medicine, law and business to address two critical needs that we can most effectively impact together as one team – improvements in education and health outcomes,” said Ballad Health Chairman and CEO Alan Levine.
A Holistic Approach to Health
If there’s anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s that access to healthcare isn’t the only thing that dictates someone’s health outcomes. Though it’s obviously an important part, good health is not just about having access to medicine alone. For example, consider the case of a child with a recurring cough. The parents find out that it’s due to mold inside their apartment, but their landlord refuses to fix it.
This is where an MLP comes into play.
“A doctor can’t go in and rough up the landlord,” said Mark Kelsey, a lawyer with ASL. “But a legal team can go in and say ‘Oh, you know, you actually are entitled for this mold to get remediated. Your landlord is to be responsible for that.'”
If the landlord doesn’t listen, then their lawyers can help you take the next legal steps. They can also help patients file paperwork for Medicaid and give advice on how to effectively deal with medical debt.
“Just like our efforts to promote child literacy or educate families about safety and healthy habits, this partnership with Appalachian School of Law and Virginia Tech can really make a difference in someone’s health,” said Levine.
In the US, there can be several barriers preventing someone from getting healthcare, especially in the midst of the pandemic. Not having access to stable housing, disability benefits and healthy foods also play a role in someone’s health.
“As a health system, we’re here not just to treat people when they need care, but also to help them improve their overall health in other ways, outside the clinical world,” said Levine. “This is about helping people overcome the obstacles they might have in getting access to healthcare.”
COVID-19 in Southwestern Virginia
According to Del. Terry Kilgore, who helped get state approval for the MLP, it will be an asset during the pandemic.
“The legal help people receive will make a huge impact on their health,” said Kilgore.
In December, Ballad Health reported 95 deaths due to COVID-19 in seven days. According to their latest data release, Ballad Health currently has 226 COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
“Unfortunately, December was one of the deadliest months of the pandemic,” said Clay Reynolds, the Chief Physician Executive for Ballad Health. “We had a tremendous number of deaths which is very tragic.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in the Southwestern region of Virginia is spiking, as is the rest of the Commonwealth. Today, the region saw 125 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 new deaths. While the pandemic is affecting all Virginians, there are unique challenges that the Southwest faces which other regions may not. One of their biggest issues is a lack of access to healthcare as a whole.
Even before the pandemic, these problems were prevalent. In 2019, the Carilion Center published a study that revealed a lack transportation and poverty played a role in the area’s lack of access to healthcare.
Health Outcomes About More Than Healthcare
“Some of the top needs that were identified that were a little different this year included a lot of social determinant of health issues. So, how transportation, poverty can affect your health and can be the underlying reason why some people may not be living healthy lifestyles,” said Aaron Boush, Carilion’s Community Health and Outreach Manager.
Another 2019 study from the Virginia Consumer Healthcare Experience State Survey found that 63% of Southwestern Virginians experienced at least one healthcare affordability issue in the past year. Now, COVID-19 has only made these problems worse. Just last month, the region was responsible for 30% of Virginia’s new COVID-19 cases.
“Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, but also given the challenges in the Appalachian Highlands, it’s extremely important that everyone in our region has access to quality healthcare,” said Sen. Todd Pillion. “Thanks to this medical-legal partnership, a lot more people will have the opportunity for better care who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks of the system.”
Paperwork and Homework For Legal Aid Students
The purpose of an MLP is to help those with their medical issues access legal advice. That help extends to assistance with tasks as menial as paperwork or as serious as a full-blown legal battle.
“People found it way too confusing to fill out the paperwork to get Medicaid. Medical staff usually don’t have time to sit down and file that paperwork, but these law students can help. Legal aid clinics can help with that. And in that way, the healthcare system saves money, but more importantly, the patient is better off,” said Kelsey.
The MLP is staffed with lawyers, law students, and professors. They are all trained in navigating the healthcare and legal systems of Virginia. In addition to providing legal advice, students will also contribute to its development.
While the program is running, the students will analyze how effective the MLP is by developing the intake forms, surveys and other metrics used to evaluate the impact the MLP has on its patients. They will also study evaluate the partnership’s impact on Ballad Health team members and the communities they serve. They’ll use this data to help other parts of the country create their own MLPs and also gain a better understanding of what their patients’ need.
Need Legal Assistance?
The program is already accepting clients. Attorneys are currently holding sessions online, but they can make arrangements for in-person consultations. The Appalachian School of Law is also taking requests for assistance through email and over the phone.
Patients of Ballad Health who live in Virginia or Tennessee can participate in the partnership. If you have received care at the following hospitals, you’re eligible. They include Bristol Regional, Holston Valley Hospital, Johnston Memorial Hospital and Norton Community Hospital.
There are no requirements for proving financial need to qualify for the program. If you’re interested in the MLP, you can speak with a representative by emailing the ASL at [email protected]. You can also call them at 276-244-1289. However, it’s important to identify yourself as a Ballad Health patient or patient guardian.
Arianna Coghill is a content producer for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].