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Doctors pair up with lawyers to find cures for those in need

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri attorney Lauren Hamvas, left, chats with project director Amanda Schneider at Family Care Health Centers in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri attorney Lauren Hamvas, left, chats with project director Amanda Schneider at Family Care Health Centers, in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis.

Your doctor can refer you to a specialist … but what if she could refer you to free legal help, too?

In St. Louis, attorneys for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri are making the rounds at community health clinics to help patients whose health issues may need a legal remedy.

“I just think it’s the future of where medical care is going. Doctors can treat symptoms but there’s certain social issues that they can’t treat, so that’s where we can step in,” staff attorney Lauren Hamvas said during an outreach session at Family Care Health Centers in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis.

At any point in time, Hamvas and her colleagues represent about a hundred people in the St. Louis region who came to them through the program. Hundreds more have come in for consultations. They handle issues like disputes with landlords, if mold or roaches are affecting a tenant’s health. Sometimes clients ask for help to resolve challenges filing for Medicaid or Social Security benefits.

Sometimes, patients will reveal information to their doctor that they won’t tell anyone else. In one case, program director Amanda Schneider worked with a patient who was trying to leave an abusive relationship.  

“We were able to advise her of all of her options, just lay it out there on the table,” Schneider said. “At this time she’s decided to stay, but I think we have empowered her to know what her options are in the future.”

As part of the program, health center employees are also taught how to screen their patients for potential legal needs.

The program is funded by a three-year grant of $665,558 from the Missouri Foundation for Health. Hamvas, Schneider and a social worker rotate between Family Care Health Centers’ two locations in the Carondelet and The Grove neighborhoods, and Affinia Health Care’s clinics on Biddle Street and Lemp Avenue. Another grant offers similar services to children receiving care at local hospitals and Affinia.

Christine Rohloff, a community health nurse for Family Care Health Centers, said she used to give Legal Services’ 1-800 number to her patients, who are often elderly or living with a chronic condition. Now that the attorneys hold office hours at the center regularly, Rohloff can refer her patients directly to them.

“I’m just thrilled to have them here,” she said. “I can make the referral, not depend on a person making a phone call.”

More than 120 legal aid agencies have medical-legal programs around the country, including one in Springfield, Missouri, according to the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

The Missouri Foundation for Health is a donor to St. Louis Public Radio.