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KNBA - Six Alaska tribal health facilities to add legal aid to patient services

Oct. 6, 2016

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA

Hospitals typically are not in the business of providing legal aid to patients, but several tribal health facilities in Alaska are going to start doing just that. The pilot project is being funded through a multi-state grant that's placing AmeriCorps volunteers in tribal facilities in six states.

Nicole Nelson is executive director of the nonprofit Alaska Legal Services, which serves low income and disadvantaged people. She said the new partnerships with tribal health organizations will help Alaskans enjoy the same rights and privileges as other Americans.

“There's an enormous justice gap in all Alaskans, including Alaska Native people, in their ability to get civil legal help when they need it,” said Nelson. “The cost of an attorney is far out of reach for most people. And it's even more so for those who are … the access to justice challenges for somebody who lives in a village to have their rights or the laws enforced, it's just exacerbated by the rurality.”

Nelson said Alaska Legal Services has fewer than 30 attorneys statewide so the addition of six AmeriCorps members is a significant expansion. She said it will help address unmet needs, and take legal services to where the people are.

“So what we're trying to do with this project is to embed legal aid attorneys in places where people are going to go to any way,” said Nelson. “So they can have better access to the legal system and a better chance of enforcing their rights and taking advantage of the opportunities that are afforded to them by law.”

Dr. Robert Onders  is director of community and health systems improvement for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which co-manages the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. He said achieving health and wellness involves more than just medical services.

“There's significant social conditions whether that be housing or employment or education that impacts one's health,” said Onders. “And having this partnership helps address both the health issues as well as the social conditions that sometimes physicians don't have all the skills to address.”

The legal services attorneys can help handle inappropriate denials of social security or veterans benefits, legal guardianships and powers of attorney, as well as elder abuse and domestic violence. But they can't meet all the legal needs of patients, said Onders.

“Their scope of services is fairly limited because the need for just those services we anticipate to be fairly high,” said Onders. “And that's what they've shown in other medical legal partnerships.”

The Alaska partnerships generally are modeled after some 300 medical-legal partnerships across the nation, and particularly after one the Navajo Nation formed with the southwest U.S. counterpart to Alaska Legal Services.

Other Alaska tribal health organizations are forming medical legal partnerships for some of their facilities. Those include Tanana Chiefs Conference at the Chief Andrew Isaacs Health Center in Fairbanks; Norton Sound Health Corporation at the Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome; Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium at facilities in Juneau and Sitka; and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe at the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai.

Additional partnerships in Alaska may be formed over the course of the three-year pilot project.

Note:  Text version adds  list of other tribal health organizations forming partnerships.