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New Medical-Legal Grant
Legal Aid of North Carolina

New Medical-Legal Grant

Groups join forces to address long-term health impacts of Hurricane Matthew and other devastating storms 

Partnership between Legal Aid of North Carolina, ECU Brody School of Medicine, Vidant Health, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation highlights health and social effects of storms

RALEIGH, May 31, 2017 – June 1 marks the start of hurricane season, a troubling reality for the people of eastern North Carolina who are still dealing with the aftermath of last October's Hurricane Matthew.

The effects of hurricanes linger long after their waters recede, particularly the long-term health impacts. Those concerns drive a new partnership – focusing on communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew – between Legal Aid of North Carolina, the East Carolina University (ECU) Brody School of Medicine, and Vidant Health. This effort is funded in part by a $375,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation (Blue Cross NC Foundation).

Damage from wind and rising waters is often the most visible devastation of hurricanes, yet it is the residual health effects brought about by the water damage that can go unnoticed, except by those who live in homes still damp with mold and the health care providers who see them for related illness, such as asthma. However, treating the health conditions of those impacted by storm-related environmental hazards is only part of the solution. Addressing the source of the problem is also critical. 

"Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that makes it difficult to breathe," said Dr. Greg Kearney of ECU's Department of Public Health. "For many people with asthma, avoiding environmental 'triggers' like exposure to mold inside the home is important to decrease their risk of having an asthma attack. Most people don't realize that eastern North Carolina has the highest rates of childhood asthma in the state, accompanied by a high percentage of poor quality rental housing. As we get into the hot summer months, homes that were impacted by flooding from Hurricane Matthew and not properly repaired may start to show visible signs of mold inside the home. This could pose a serious threat for people with asthma and allergies." 

ECU and Vidant Health are partners in the Eastern Carolina Asthma Prevention Program (ECAPP), which focuses on low-cost approaches people can take to reduce asthma triggers in their homes. A big challenge for the program has been that renters, particularly those who live in communities with few affordable housing options, have little control over many of the most significant contributors to unhealthy housing conditions, like:

  • mold caused by roof leaks

  • damp foundations

  • inadequate ventilation

Many renters are unable to persuade their landlords to make necessary repairs or worry that their requests will lead to retaliatory eviction, which is prohibited in North Carolina. 

This is the basis for the collaboration with Legal Aid's Medical-Legal Partnership program, a nationally-established model built on the recognition that good health depends on many non-medical factors that occur outside the walls of clinics and hospitals. It connects low-income patients who are dealing with difficult and stressful situations – such as unsafe rental housing, wrongful evictions, and improper denial of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), food assistance, or other safety-net services – to resources to seek legal remedies, using the health care provider as the primary referral source.

As a result of this initiative, medical providers in ECAPP will now have a direct resource for patients in need of legal intervention for a variety of problems that may have been caused by or made worse by Hurricane Matthew. The program expects to serve families in Vidant's 29-county service area, with assistance from legal advocates from Legal Aid offices located throughout the eastern part of the state, including those in Greenville, Wilson, Ahoskie, and Wilmington.

"The Vidant Medical Center Pediatric Asthma Program has been caring for children with asthma through case management, patient and family education, and care standardization for more than 20 years. Case management is trained to identify unhealthy living conditions that can negatively impact a child's asthma and overall health status," said Theresa Blount, coordinator for the award-winning Pediatric Asthma Program. "This partnership enhances our ability to secure unique resources for children suffering with asthma in order for them to live healthier and more productive lives."

It is the link between housing conditions and health that made this effort so appealing to the Blue Cross NC Foundation, as they looked for an opportunity to support communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew.

"We know that improving health doesn't just mean improving access to health care," said Kathy Higgins, president of the Blue Cross NC Foundation. "Health is built in our homes, in our communities, in our environments. For many of the most vulnerable North Carolinians, Matthew was not the first natural disaster to impact their lives, and it won't be the last. This partnership focuses on improving the environmental, social, and economic devastation caused by storms." 

Based on experience, Legal Aid anticipates that it could take six to seven years for Matthew-related legal assistance needs to subside. As the program develops it will expand to focus on other social determinants of health, such as food insecurity, domestic violence, and benefits eligibility, many of which are likely to be identified by ECAPP staff who visit families in their homes.

"Many communities in rural, eastern North Carolina were already burdened, before Hurricane Matthew's devastating impact, with chronically-high rates of extreme poverty and inadequate access to many of the resources that are essential for health and economic opportunity," said George R. Hausen, Jr., executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina. "Disaster recovery efforts require strategic, long-term investments from every part of our state. By working with our collaborators from ECAPP, we hope to be able to remediate the unmet legal needs of many of Vidant Health's most vulnerable, low-income patients and that our collaboration will result in better health outcomes for patients and communities throughout eastern North Carolina."

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About Legal Aid of North Carolina
Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity.

About the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University
The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University is nationally recognized for preparing primary care physicians who practice in medically underserved communities. All those admitted are North Carolina residents and the majority of its graduates practice primary care in North Carolina. Brody's research includes a strong focus on cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and preventive care. Brody partners with Vidant Health to provide a teaching hospital, sharing faculty physicians in broad service areas such as critical care, surgery, emergency care, and trauma. It also operates ECU Physicians, the clinical practice for the Brody School of Medicine.

About Vidant Health
Vidant Health is a mission-driven, 1,439-bed health system that annually serves more than 1.4 million people in 29 eastern North Carolina counties. The not-for-profit system is made up of 12,000 employees, eight hospitals, home health, hospice, wellness centers, and Vidant Medical Group, a multispecialty physician and provider group with more than 420 providers in 80 practice sites. Vidant Health is affiliated with the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. As a major resource for health services and education, Vidant Health has a mission to improve the health and well-being of eastern North Carolina. For more information, visit www.vidanthealth.com.

About Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation
The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) Foundation is an independent, charitable foundation with the mission of improving the health and well-being of North Carolinians. Since its founding in 2000, Blue Cross NC Foundation has invested more than $113 million in North Carolina communities through more than 870 grants. Blue Cross NC Foundation grantmaking and special initiatives are focused in three key areas: improving health outcomes of populations served by safety net organizations; increasing physical activity and access to healthy, local foods; and increasing the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations and their leaders. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. More information is available at bcbsncfoundation.org.

Contacts

Sean Driscoll, Legal Aid North Carolina, seand@legalaidnc.org, 919.856.2132

Amy Adams Ellis, Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, ELLISA14@ecu.edu, 252.744.3764

Amy Holcombe, Vidant Health, Amy.Holcombe@vidanthealth.com, 252.847.2725

Amon Marstiller, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation amon.marstiller@bcbsncfoundation.org, 919.451.0096