New program gives free legal help to families for health-related issues

Chicago families with kids who have complicated medical conditions now have easier access to legal help, thanks to a new partnership between the University of Illinois at Chicago and Legal Council for Health Justice.

Under the partnership, families participating in the university's grant-funded CHECK program, which stands for Coordination of Healthcare for Complex Kids, are given free access to legal services for issues related to health.

Molly Siegel, executive director of CHECK, says providing civil legal support to families is an important step forward in the program's mission to improve health outcomes for underprivileged children and young adults on Medicaid who are suffering from chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and sickle cell disease.

"We recognize that health care outcomes, particularly for those who are poor, are directly impacted by factors outside the health care system, such as behavioral and social circumstances," Siegel said. "Our purpose at CHECK is to test a care-coordination model that accounts for these influences and serves families better.

"Many of our patients and their families need advocates who can help them understand their rights and navigate complex issues like eligibility, reimbursement, housing and transportation barriers, domestic violence, special education and disability," Siegel said. "By partnering with Legal Council, CHECK can support patient health by helping address these critical issues, in addition to their medical care."

Half of all children in Illinois are enrolled in Medicaid. The majority live on the South and West sides of Chicago, and many of them seek care at UIC's hospital and clinics. Over the course of the project CHECK has enrolled 16,000 kids and young adults from Chicago and Cook County into the program.

Families are referred for legal support by the CHECK care-coordination team, whose members have been trained by Legal Council to recognize when families may benefit from a lawyer's help. The services of a dedicated attorney are provided on site at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, and continue until a resolution is reached, including litigation, if necessary.

"Chronic illness is among the most costly and leading causes of death in the U.S.," said Tom Yates, Legal Council's executive director. "Legal representation is a powerful tool that, when paired with expert medical care and care coordination, can improve patient health and reduce the costs of care."

The partnership between UIC and Legal Council is one of only 17 medical-legal partnerships in Illinois.

Legal Council launched the first medical-legal partnership in the nation to secure well-being for people facing barriers due to illness or disability. It began in a small office in Cook County's hospital to provide advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients.

"CHECK's expansion to include civil legal aid with care coordination and mental health support will be a game-changer in helping vulnerable children and youth to achieve a healthier, more stable future," said Dr. Mark Minier, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at UIC and medical director of the CHECK program.

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