Legal Aid plans office at Erlanger hospital for patients

photo Erlanger Hospital is located on 3rd Street in Chattanooga.
photo Erlanger Chief Legal Officer Dale Hetzler

Low-income patients who come to Erlanger Health System to be treated for medical ailments also may receive help with legal woes.

On Monday, Erlanger and Legal Aid of East Tennessee announced a health law partnership aimed at reducing the legal stress that sends some patients to the hospital -- including domestic violence, housing trouble and employment challenges.

Erlanger Interim President and CEO Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson said the partnership, which begins Jan. 3, will help those who use "the hospital as a refuge."

"Sometimes we are full with people who could be released to more appropriate care," she said.

A full-time Legal Aid attorney and a part-time assistant will be placed in Erlanger. The 40-hour-a-week position will be funded for the first six months with $25,000 from Erlanger and a one-time grant to Legal Aid by another legal organization that wasn't named.

In the greater Chattanooga area, more than 100,000 people qualify for legal aid services, said David Yoder, Legal Aid's executive director. Those whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level qualify, he said.

A hospital is a great place to connect people who need legal help with public service attorneys, said Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas. The in-hospital health law model evolved from a 1991 effort in Boston, Thomas said.

"In Boston, the doctors recognized that, because of the stress levels from legal issues, they weren't effectively treating their patients," Thomas said.

Erlanger Chief Medical Officer Cy Huffman said national statistics show that people in poverty have worse health outcomes.

Babies of those in poverty are more likely to die before their first birthday, and low-income children with asthma miss more school and die more frequently, Huffman said.

"We really value someone who will advocate for that patient in the community," he said.

Erlanger Chief Legal Officer Dale Hetzler said the partnership has been discussed for years, and everyone involved hopes the initial data will prove its worth. "It's a wing and a prayer," Hetzler said. "This is a benefit to the entire community."

Contact staff writer Ansley Haman at ahaman@timesfree or 423-757-6481.