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Legal aid community to call for $10 million budget boost

For one mom, free access to an attorney may have been a lifesaver
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    Photo from 2015's Walk to the Hill. This year is the 17th-annual rally and lobbyin|Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation

Civil legal aid probably saved Lisa’s son’s life.

That’s what the 55-year-old Medford mom will tell a crowd of lawyers on Thursday, when advocates gather to call for a massive boost in state funding for civil legal services for low-income residents.

Lisa, who asked Metro not to print her last name, said were it not for help from a Greater Boston Legal Services attorney, her son would have lost his MassHealth coverage and access to methadone, the drug that has helped him stay mostly sober for more than three years.

If his supply had been abruptly cut short, she said, he more likely than not would have started using heroin again.

“He told me, ‘If I get kicked off the methadone you might as well just bury me,’” Lisa said.

The Equal Justice Coalition on Thursday plans to gather hundreds of legal professionals and lead its annual “Walk to the Hill” to call on the state to increase the budget for civil legal services - free attorneys for low-income people who can’t afford a lawyer, and whose cases aren’t criminal and therefore don’t qualify for appointment of a public defender.

The attorneys help with everything from eviction and unemployment hearings to appeals on domestic violence and restraining order cases to, as with Lisa’s case, help navigating the complicated health care system.

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The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, a quasi-government group that gets money from the state to address the issue – which it then funnels to groups like GBLS or uses to pay for training and non-legal advocacy - is asking for a $10 million funding increase this year from about $17 million to $27 million. It got a $2 million bump last year.

“We know the money is critically needed,” said Lonnie Powers, MLAC’s executive director. “We’re still far under what we need to be able to represent or provide other assistance to people who need it.”

Of those who seek help, 64 percent are turned away, Powers said.

Also this year, the legal community is touting an October report from a Boston Bar Association statewide task force purporting to show that every dollar the state spends on legal aid leads to $2 or more in savings: a reduced need for homeless shelter beds and other services, for example.

That report called for an aggressive funding increase for MLAC: $30 million, to be phased in over three years.

At another time, Lisa’s family could have paid for her son’s methadone without MassHealth. She used to work in real estate and at the time had enough leftover that she could spend thousands on sending her son to detox, to rehab facilities, to doctors and to counseling during his decade-long bout with addiction.

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Then came her breast cancer diagnosis, more than a dozen surgeries, and a long time without working. Without healthcare, she wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy the medication (and the drug counseling and other services) on her husband’s salary alone, she said. The process to appeal MassHealth’s decision would be expensive. They certainly couldn’t afford a lawyer.

So fearing what might happen if coverage lapsed, she tried sorting out the issue on her own. She called MassHealth over and over, and said she kept showing up at the agency’s offices in Taunton and Tewksbury.

“Six weeks of hell,” she called it. “Every person I spoke with gave me a different answer.”

Things changed when she got in touch with an attorney at GBLS who knew about the system. The lawyer called MassHealth and deduced the problem: an issue with a tax document. No big deal. And like that, everything was resolved.

“Within one conversation she had the whole thing fixed,” Lisa said. “I nearly fainted.”

Meanwhile at Greater Boston Legal Services, the budget is tighter than ever, said Jacquelynne Bowman, its executive director.

By the end of last year, the nonprofit had reduced its staff from 135 in 2009 to 99, Bowman said. Those who stayed took a pay cut. Some GBLS attorneys make less than $50,000 a year, she said. Some are eligible for food stamps.

But cases like Lisa’s keep coming in and GBLS is “totally overwhelmed,” Bowman said.

“We’ve got staff people who don’t go home on the weekends. When there is a critical case going on literally we have some staff people sleeping in the office, catching cat naps so they can just provide full representation,” she said. “You can’t keep that pace up forever.”

GBLS’ biggest funder is MLAC. The rest of its budget comes from other lawyers and foundations, Bowman said.

Lisa, who told Metro she doesn’t believe herself a great public speaker, will nevertheless be telling her story to hundreds on Thursday. She said she owes it to GBLS to spread the word and wants others to get the same help she received.

“My point is if I didn’t call,” she said. “I still would have been running around, chasing my tail, going crazy, stressed out of my mind and I don’t know where [my son] would have been.”

Clarification: While new attorneys at Greater Boston Legal Services earn less than $50,000 per year, more veteran attorneys earn more.


 

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