The Need for Health Law Services in Rural Communities

By: Emma Fennelly, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

Rural communities have special needs when it comes to accessibility. These needs manifest in many different ways: rural communities often suffer from food insecurity due to food deserts; they have fewer options when choosing school systems for their children; they have fewer opportunities for employment; they often lack affordable or subsidized housing; they lack modes of public transportation; they often have little to no access to healthcare; and they often have little to no access to legal services. Due to these deficiencies, many individuals and families in rural communities simply go without, exacerbating their educational, financial, and health issues and contributing to the cyclical nature of poverty.

Health law can seem somewhat ambiguous. As I have learned through my time in the HeLP Clinic, which partners with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to serve families with children with severe health concerns, health law is an all-encompassing field which aims to help individuals address their health concerns that impact every area of their lives. Many clients, particularly those with less affluent backgrounds, are unaware of their legal rights regarding health and, in turn, do not receive the services they should to support their health needs. From housing deficiencies and inadequate education to denial of public benefits, health law attorneys seek to empower their clients with the knowledge of their legal rights to benefits and services, improving their overall quality of life. Rural communities, however, often lack any access to health law attorneys due to their locality. This fact is especially problematic as rural communities have such specialized needs stemming from their lack of accessibility.

In Georgia specifically, professionals have recognized the following: poverty rates for rural counties exceed those in urban counties by 58%; rural counties have approximately half as many physicians and dramatically fewer nurses, therapists, and nutritionists per capita as metro counties; the crude death rate is higher in rural areas than the urban county rate; and lower educational levels found in rural counties contribute to poverty and handicap individuals and families when making health decisions.

Some interventions are currently in place to address the lack of access to healthcare in rural communities. The State Office of Rural Health, a subdivision of the Georgia Department for Community Health, addresses rural health needs in many ways. Ninety rural health clinics have been implemented throughout the entire state, improving Georgia’s primary healthcare in rural, underserved areas. Additionally, through the Health Professional Shortage Area Designations program, communities are able to apply for federal designation for assistance with recruiting of healthcare providers, increasing the number of physicians in these areas. Lastly, the Hospital Services Program funds resources for critical hospitals in rural areas. These state programs have significantly increased rural areas’ access to healthcare providers.

However, the current interventions in place address only the expansion of healthcare providers in rural communities. While this access is critical to the health of rural communities, a more holistic approach, including more than medical providers alone, would better help individuals and families address their health concerns in every area of their lives. Health means more than just medical care, and health concerns in rural communities manifest in more than one area. Housing, education, and public benefits all directly affect a person’s health. Thus, the implementation of legal, social, and educational services is also necessary to create sustainable, healthy communities. The rural health clinics that are already in place need medical-legal partnerships. These partnerships are springing up in rural areas all over the country and have the same mission as the HeLP Clinic, to bridge the gap between the medical and legal professions and assist individuals and families in their efforts towards a healthy lifestyle.