Wichita Kansas | February 3, 2024
By Stefania Lugli | Planeta venus
A new program at GraceMed helps patients overcome legal barriers to optimize their health, elevating medical intervention with low-cost legal assistance in a holistic approach to community care.
The initiative addresses five areas for legal consultation: income, housing, education and employment, legal status (as it pertains to jobs) and personal stability.
Marty Keenan, the director of legal services, and his paralegal, LaShawn Kelly, make up the two-person team behind the program. They are available to patients for a free consultation, charge $35 to formally open a case and also charge for each encounter with the client. However, like regular GraceMed patients, Keenan and Kelly can flex payments based on a client’s ability to pay.
“This job appealed to me because I think America’s biggest failure is healthcare,” Keenan says. “I think of healthcare as a right, so I saw this position as a great ministry. Not only to help people with legal problems but try to do something on the healthcare side.”
But how do legal and medical coincide? The legal duo frequently reference how their work elevates the social determinants of health, the non-medical factors that influence a person’s health, including safe housing, workplace conditions, racism, education, food insecurity or even the walkability of one’s neighborhood.
For example, people with limited access to grocery stores with fresh, healthy foods are less likely to have good nutrition — thereby increasing their risk of health conditions like diabetes, obesity or heart disease.
Kelly pointed to another example she is seen in her work: patients suffering from anxiety or high blood pressure due to their workplace environment. Potential legal problems they could address in such a case include workplace discrimination, harassment, wrongful discharge, or people being afraid to quit their jobs because they will not be eligible for unemployment payments.
“They can’t fully function at their job because they are too worried about the legal issues. So, that compromises their health too, which brings them in to see their primary care physician. Maybe there is a risk of having a heart attack because they’re consumed with worry,” Kelly said. “They don’t know how to coexist with this problem, so that’s how you kind of relate the health issue with the legal issue.”
Approaching healthcare from the outside-in
The GraceMed Medical-Legal Program is the first of its kind in Wichita, but its mission isn’t novel in the U.S.
The National Center for Medical Legal Partnership encourages health organizations to leverage legal services in an effort to “address structural problems at the root of so many health inequities.” Their research shows that when legal services are used to address social needs, patients are admitted to the hospital less frequently, report lower levels of stress and are more likely to find stable housing.
The Center’s motivation for this approach to health partly comes from the fact that, despite spending up to four times more on healthcare, the U.S. continues to have some of the worst health outcomes among wealthy nations. Research shows that as the only wealthy country without universal healthcare, the U.S. continuously has had the lowest life expectancy, the highest death rates for ‘avoidable or treatable’ conditions, the highest maternal and infant mortality and the highest rate of people with multiple chronic conditions.
The Center argues that the poor outcomes aren’t the result of spending too little, but the result of where the money is spent. The U.S. spends 90 cents on social services for every dollar it spends on healthcare, compared to other wealthy nations that spend two dollars for every dollar they spend on healthcare.
Some research points to these numbers as the limits of medical care. While medical healthcare is, of course, important to a person’s physical health, there’s value to considering health as “more than the absence of disease.”
“Ideally, if a person wants to be healthy, they should have some money to pay for healthcare, they should live in a safe place, have pretty good employment, a clean record and a building that’s safe with safe people living in them,” Keenan says.
Keenan and Kelly also emphasize education when interacting with patients.
“Knowledge is power. Your greatest weapon is knowing the law, knowing your rights,”’ Kelly says. “That’s whether you’re at a school, a job, anything.”
A recent successful venture was the pair winning a case in a fraudulent rent-to-own case, when a Spanish-speaking couple were duped into paying rent for years on a home they thought they would soon own, as originally reported by Planeta Venus and KMUW. Keenan represented the “devastated” couple in court, who were patients at GraceMed.
Keenan says that case was an abuse of a language barrier, but also one that could have been prevented had the couple been educated on their rights as tenants or potential buyers.
As reported by Planeta Venus and KMUW, the husband Keenan represented said he went to trial to prevent what happened to him from happening to others.
“I don’t want what happened to us to happen to other people. Because there are a lot of people who don’t do anything because they are told they are undocumented, that you have no right to anything,” the husband said.
Kelly says this is why Keenan emphasizes education to his clients.
“He really wants to push education, let others know what rights they have so then they’re aware of what they could possibly do to protect themselves,” she says.
Keenan has practiced law for over 35 years. He transitioned from decades of private practice to a more public-facing role because of a relentless desire to help as many people as he can.
He illustrates this passion by telling Planeta Venus his current biggest frustration with the job: the lack of awareness about the program.
“It takes a while to get the word out about what we’re doing because it’s novel,” Keenan says. “Right now, we’re able to do a lot of public outreach, but we’d like to handle as many cases as possible.”
Since the program’s start in April 2023, Keenan and Kelly have closed less than one hundred cases. Ideally, they say they can manage 40 - 50 cases at a time. Many of the cases they handle are ‘one-day’ cases like medical power of attorney or criminal expungement.
A patient’s access to Keenan and Kelly relies on an astute physician, who, according to Keenan, should think about potential legal problems with every patient encounters. They are who refer a patient to GraceMed’s Community Cares department, who then decides if the legal team is appropriate to a patient’s need.
Keenan says that he does not want potential clients thinking they can “act sick” as a GraceMed patient for a low-cost lawyer.
“We don’t want that,” he says. “But if a woman comes in with a black eye, an obvious trauma, we want to get people out of situations where their life circumstances are aggravating their health problems.”
How to be eligible as a legal client
● Must be a patient at GraceMed
● Must be referred by a physician to the Community Cares team
What the Medical-Legal Program can help patients with
● Appeal denials of food stamps, health insurance and disability benefits
● Improve substandard housing conditions
● Protect against utility shut-off
● Prevent and remedy employment discrimination
● Enforce workplace rights
● Clear criminal histories and clear credit histories
● Secure restraining orders for domestic violence
● Secure adoption, custody, and guardianship for children
● Power of Attorney, Do Not Resuscitate Directives and Living Wills
What they don’t help with
● Criminal cases
● Immigration status