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Unique medical-legal partnership expands

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Practitioners involved with the state’s first medical-legal partnership are excited about the cases they’ve taken on, as they help patients who have unmet legal needs that can make medical conditions persist, if not worsen.

Medical-legal partnerships also have been getting national attention recently. The American Bar Association issued a statement June 15 in support of the American Medical Association’s resolution passed that day by its House of Delegates to support these kinds of partnerships.

medical legal Anna Obergfell, right, attorney and director of the medical-legal partnership at Wishard in Indianapolis, works with doctors at Wishard’s Pecar Health Center, including family doctor Dr. Daniela Lobo, left, when patients have legal issues. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The Indianapolis partnership started in early 2008 with the support of the Indiana Health Advocacy Coalition to provide legal aid to pediatric patients and their families who receive treatment from Pecar Health Center, part of Wishard Health Services, on the city’s northwest side. Attorneys at Baker & Daniels, Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, and Indianapolis Legal Aid Society supported the partnership early on and continue to do so.

The early goal of the partnership, which continues more than two years later, was to help address medical issues that would be easier to solve if a legal problem was also resolved. It brought various partners to the table – doctors, lawyers, caseworkers, and social workers – to determine the best practices to address the patient’s issues.

Patients are helped by the partnership by first meeting with a doctor about a health issue, and then the doctor will ask a series of questions that could have an effect on the health issue such as housing, financial needs, eligibility for benefits, child-support coverage, guardianship, or if the patient was in a domestic-violence situation.

Lawyers who work with doctors in the partnership said they tend to hear more concerns about housing than any other issue. At Pecar, housing issues make up about one third of all legal issues referred to lawyers in the partnership. This is also the case at most of the other locations, including a growing awareness of patients who might need legal help when applying for benefits and filing for protective orders.

The biggest change the partnership has undergone since early 2008 is how much it has expanded and continues to expand.

In the past year and a half, the partnership has grown to include two more Wishard sites: Tavonna Harris Askew now spends time helping patients of the North Arlington Health Center, and she will also call on ILAS from time to time for help with housing and guardianship cases. Indiana Legal Services attorney Jay Chaudhary has been spending part of his time at Midtown Community Mental Health Center.

Other Wishard sites have also asked to have lawyers readily available to doctors and patients. Wishard’s medical-legal partnership director who started in fall 2009, Anna Obergfell, currently oversees the partnership’s work at Pecar. But as she takes on more responsibilities, NCLC attorneys will likely help fill in as they did before she joined the partnership as staff.

Obergfell added that another Wishard program, EMBRACE, which helps women with cancer regarding issues that go beyond medical needs, has begun working with a group of women attorneys at Baker & Daniels. Those attorneys help provide legal services, such as will preparation and guardianship issues.

While some of the patients are terminal, just knowing they have their affairs in order can help them focus on their treatment and more of their energy enjoying time with their families, Obergfell said.

Chaudhary said one of his recent cases involved a patient who has a mental illness. He was able to have the doctor testify at the Medicaid hearing as to why the patient could not work, which is almost unheard of for a Medicaid hearing, he and others in the partnership said. He is also working closely with the doctors who complete medical reports to make them aware of what review boards look for and how to connect the illness to why the person can’t work instead of just saying the person has an illness and listing the symptoms. He said most doctors do the best they can, but by explaining the legal side, it should help everyone.

chad priest Priest

Another ILS attorney, Adam Mueller, helps address legal needs of patients at St. Francis Neighborhood Health Center at Garfield Park, which has intake sessions on a regular basis for patients.

Attorneys from the different nonprofits have also collaborated on various legal issues, especially if one organization has more experience with a certain issue than another. For instance, NCLC tends to take immigration cases for patients because it does more immigration work than ILS and ILAS.

Community Hospitals also has been involved with the partnership. A law student intern of ILAS, who was also getting a master’s degree in public health, worked with patients at Community on their legal needs. ILAS will continue to help with legal issues there on a case-by-case basis, said John Floreancig, executive director of ILAS.

Obergfell said at least one other hospital system in Indianapolis is in the planning stages to join the partnership, and there has been talk among ILS, which is statewide, and other legal partners regarding more possible medical-legal partnerships around the state. It is still too early to say when or where that will happen.

Other attorneys also support the program, including Priscilla B. Keith, general counsel of Health & Hospital Corp., Wishard’s parent organization; co-founder Chad Priest, who was previously with Baker & Daniels and is chief executive officer of Managed Emergency Surge for Healthcare Inc.; and NCLC Executive Director Josh Abel and managing attorney Chris Purnell.

Attorneys said the Indianapolis program is unique because it involves so many partners. In most cases, there is one hospital or medical program and one legal organization, but Indianapolis is now seen as a national model for other large partnerships, Priest said.

Askew said it’s been interesting to see the different legal aid organizations and law firm supporters come together, as well as three different hospital systems that usually would be competing for market share.

She and others involved say it’s also interesting to see lawyers and doctors collaborate so closely.

One recent case involved a landlord who requested a signed doctor’s note to show that the air conditioning needed to be fixed. Obergfell said the landlord received a note signed by a doctor – and a lawyer in the partnership. The landlord resolved the matter soon after getting the letter.

Doctors and lawyers and others in the partnership also get together on a quarterly basis for CLE and CME courses that address legal and medical issues to help those involved in the partnership.

In another example of many partners working together, Askew mentioned a case of a girl who came to a Wishard site as an asthma patient. When she was younger, she’d been taken from her mother. She had been living with her dad until he was sent to prison. The father’s health plan had covered the girl’s asthma care, but because he lost his coverage when he went to jail, she no longer had health-care coverage. After the girl’s doctor shared this information with lawyers in the partnership, attorneys helped reunite her with her mom through a guardianship case. The girl’s mom had changed enough since the child was taken from her so it was OK for the mom to be back in the girl’s life. And, because of the reunion the girl was again eligible for benefits to cover her asthma care.

“The reason for MLPs is to improve health care,” said Dr. Enid Zwirn, chair of the Indiana Health Advocacy Coalition. “The idea of MLPs is a good idea and will last the test of time. I think in the next 10 to 15 years, there will be more of an expectation from health-care providers that if they can identify a legal issue, they can contact a lawyer to help their patient.”

Zwirn added she’s heard from Dr. Lisa Harris, chief executive officer and medical director of Wishard Health Services, that even novice doctors have come to her to express how much the partnership has helped them do their jobs and treat patients.•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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