Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services 

MANKATO — Open Door Health Center medical staff used to refer low-income patients looking for legal assistance to free services downtown.

Now they just lead them across the hall.

The nonprofit has partnered with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, or SMRLS, on the Lawyers Advancing Wellness project since 2016. The health care/legal collaboration, also known as LAW, includes a full-time lawyer on site ready to meet with patients.

The grant-funded project connects low-income patients to free legal aid, which could end up addressing the social determinants negatively impacting their health.

“We’re not just looking at it from a traditional legal ideal of will this be successful in court,” said Ben Chapman, LAW project staff attorney. “We’re also looking at it from if we help them with this will it have a positive impact on their health condition.”

Cases range from protection orders to felony expungement — basically anything besides criminal defense, child protection and fee-generating cases. Survivors of domestic or sexual violence account for 70 percent of the clients in closed cases.

Along with the mental health benefits of clearing up a legal issue hanging over someone’s head, the project attempts to quantify potential physical health improvements. Maybe a felony committed decades ago is still preventing someone from finding good housing and work. 

"Having that expunged opens up a lot of doors for them,” said Rochelle Perry, psychiatric nurse practitioner at Open Door. 

Even if the offense makes them ineligible, the attorney can connect them to a landlord willing to help. By improving their living situation, their mental health could follow suit. 

Another case involved someone with asthma trying to get their landlord to replace old, moldy carpet. The law project helped address the issue, establishing a safer home environment. 

Perry said it's an example of how the project can fix negative health determinants in ways the medical community can’t.

“If the stressors are affecting their mental health, I can’t fix their housing issues,” she said. “I don’t have a medicine to do that.”

As more patients found out about the service in the past couple of years, usage spiked. The project went from closing 105 cases in 2016 to 321 last year. Most clients, 72 percent last year, were new to SMRLS.

“People are reaching us who didn’t reach us,” said Larry Nicol, program supervisor with SMRLS.

He credits the project's heavy usage to its placement within the health care setting. When Open Door referred patients to SMRLS' downtown office in the past, they were less likely to follow up due to transportation or communication barriers.

“Most of the folks are being walked over by the health care providers who know and trust that he’s going to be able to do something for people,” Nicol said.

Chapman can't handle all the cases, leading him to refer clients to other SMRLS attorneys. Nicol said it's a great way to introduce them to free legal services before their problem grows.

“You don’t think about needing a lawyer until you’re served with court papers. Well, we want to get to them sooner,” he said. “We’re catching problems upstream."

The LAW project’s first two years were funded by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota, which the partners will apply for again. Funding this year was secured from Otto Bremer Trust, totaling $80,000, and $10,000 from Greater Mankato Area United Way.

Chapman is on site at Open Door from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. And if he's not there, he's likely in court working a current case.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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