A medical-legal partnership that aims to assist veterans in Iowa has opened its doors, thanks in part to a $20,000 grant from the American Bar Endowment.
Iowa Legal Aid, a recipient of the ABE’s Opportunity Grant Program—which provides annual awards to local projects that advance access to justice, improve the justice system or increase civic engagement—is addressing legal problems that affect veterans’ health in several new clinics in the state’s VA medical centers.
Part of the impetus for Iowa Legal Aid’s application for the grant stemmed from Iowa being one of only nine states left without a medical-legal partnership in a VA medical center, says Todd Schmidt, a senior staff attorney with Iowa Legal Aid.
“The overarching goal here is to build trust and relationships with social workers and other personnel with the VA medical centers so they can connect us with veterans in need who may not necessarily be as apt to walk into a law office,” he says. “There was a demonstrated need where we are, and this is really going to improve our services to this population.”
According to a 2018 Iowa Access to Justice Commission report, nearly 15,000 active and reserve military members in Iowa may be in need of legal assistance.
In the past year, Iowa Legal Aid has worked with the Iowa Access to Justice Commissions’ Veterans Work Group on the report’s recommendations for addressing unmet legal needs, which included establishing a legal clinic in at least one VA medical center in the state, Schmidt says.
In 2016, then-ABA President Linda Klein launched the ABA Veterans Legal Services Initiative, which also called for increasing the use of medical-legal partnerships at VA facilities.
Iowa Legal Aid, which has managed medical-legal partnerships in hospitals and health care facilities for more than a decade, staffs the new clinics with two fellows from its Iowa City and Council Bluffs offices who already exclusively serve veterans.
One fellow meets with veterans in VA Community Resource and Referral Centers in Cedar Rapids and Davenport twice a month. The other will work with veterans at the VA Community Resource and Referral Center in Omaha, Nebraska, located across the Missouri River from Iowa Legal Aid’s Council Bluffs office.
The fellows, along with four law students, assist with various civil legal issues, including eviction and foreclosure defense, subsidized housing benefits appeals, government benefits applications and appeals, military discharge upgrades and family law matters.
“My hope is that there will be long-term repercussions from this,” Schmidt says. “Having this additional funding has allowed us to get out across the state more, and hopefully that will be reflected in the numbers of veterans that we’re serving.”
The ABE offered its Opportunity Grant Program for the third consecutive year, awarding a total of nearly $414,000 to Iowa Legal Aid and 10 other organizations in April.
Jonathan Cole, chair of the ABE Grants Committee, says the ABE selected Iowa Legal Aid to help the organization provide services that were nonexistent for veterans in Iowa.
“It’s very important especially in these times to support those who served our country,” he says. “All of these individuals generally have some type of legal need, so there was a huge gap in the access-to-justice system in Iowa. This clearly addresses a substantive need right there.”
The ABE, an independent, not-for-profit public charity, sponsors insurance plans for ABA lawyer members who can then donate any available dividends back to the ABE. The ABE uses those funds to support its annual grant programs.
The ABE also awarded more than $3.2 million each to the American Bar Foundation and ABA Fund for Justice and Education in the 2019 grant cycle.
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