The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is providing free legal support for patients at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, many of whom are from low income families on Medicaid.
Wal-Mart’s lawyers will be helping families to fight through Medicaid’s bureaucracy and will also help families’ handle challenges with landlords and school boards in order to help sick children get access to programs, services and equipment that they have been denied in the past.
Wal-Mart’s general counsel, Jeff Gearhart, said the company’s in-house team of 142 lawyers will help patients with issues associated with Medicaid (a jointly-funded Federal and state health insurance program that covers about 44 million people with low incomes) including children and patients with special needs . He said the bulk of cases Wal-Mart’s attorneys will work on can be resolved with a few hours of pro bono legal time, and only rarely will cases proceed to litigation.
Gearhart said “Families on medicaid are hit with a myriad of red tape when they’re in the hospital.” So Wal-Mart lawyers are being trained to help families use Medicaid in ways ranging from helping them to fill out the right forms to procuring insurance for expensive treatments and medical devices like specialized wheelchairs. “We want to be clear that this collaboration is not adversarial to Medicaid. We want to be facilitative,” he said.
Wal-Mart lawyers will help Medicaid families outside of the hospital, too, by doing things like helping families get access to special education for children, getting utility services restored or negotiating with landlords over improving condition in an apartment that may be contributing to a child’s medical condition.
Wal-Mart’s “medical-legal partnership” with the Arkansas Children’s Hospital (which kicked off this month) is a first for the retailer and it is a voluntary commitment for the company’s lawyers. It’s also a first collaboration of its kind between a large private corporation’s legal department and a major hospital.
Dr. Megan Sandel, national director with the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, said “This is the first time that a big private corporation has made a concerted effort to encourage its lawyers to become involved in MLPs.” MLPs are partnerships between health care providers and lawyers, typically involving attorneys donating their time to help low-income families with legal problems related to basic needs (health insurance, health care , housing, etc.). MLPs currently serve patients in 200 hospitals and clinics across the country, according to the American Bar Association.
Kelly Scott-Flood, project director with the American Bar Association’s Medical-Legal Partnerships Project, said “Generally speaking, MLPs across the county are involved in a range of advocacy projects, including assisting in changing public and private policies in a non-adversarial manner…Wal-Mart’s commitment to a medical-legal partnership [could] make it possible to expand critical free legal services to many more children and families.”
If the Arkansas Children’s Hospital pilot project is successful, Gearhart said it could be expanded nationwide in partnership with other hospitals, companies and law firms. In the meantime, he said that the retailer would try to find a way to help Medicaid families from elsewhere in the country if they approach Wal-Mart for legal help. “I don’t think we’ll turn someone away.” ”