Keystone First, a Medicaid managed care group, has joined with a nonprofit to offer free legal services to its members with disabilities, chronic health problems or who are at risk of eviction or living in harmful conditions.
“I was really concerned about our members,” said Kathleen Mullin, director of housing initiatives for Keystone First. “There was concern as the eviction moratorium was expiring, some members might be falling through the cracks. We are providing that holistic management care support.”
Based in Philadelphia, Keystone First serves more than 500,000 members in southeastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and the area counties, under a contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. In addition, it serves another 400,000 members in the rest of the state, making it the largest managed Medicaid group in the commonwealth.
The state’s Medicaid program provides comprehensive health care insurance to vulnerable populations and people with limited incomes.
“We do a lot of assessments and connect members to resources,” Mullin said. “The challenge is that the resources we connect people to, housing or food, may not always be available during the shifting resources of COVID.”
At present, Keystone First members who are renters in Philadelphia and Delaware counties, and have been identified by the health plan as being at risk of eviction, are eligible for the free legal services. And members in those counties, who may not be at risk for eviction but reside in poor housing conditions, are also eligible.
So far, about 75 members have been referred at a total cost of about $65,000 in this pilot program, Mullin said, which is designed to determine the need. But Keystone First is seeking to hire an attorney to handle its cases, she said.
According to the Pennsylvania Economy League, one in four renters face eviction every year in Philadelphia, a city that is the poorest of the top 10 biggest cities in the U.S.
According to Mullin, care managers at Keystone First, or other staff, may refer eligible members to the program if they determine that the member’s housing condition is considered harmful, such as the presence of lead paint, lead pipes, pest infestation or leaking roofs.
Theresa Brabson is legal director for the Legal Clinic for the Disabled, which has partnered with Keystone First to provide the free legal services.
Brabson said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the nation’s affordable housing crisis and resulted in increased housing insecurity for low-income renters, who have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic.
“It is critical that we recognize and address housing insecurity as a social determinate of health,” Brabson said. “For renters who have significant chronic health conditions or a disability, housing instability poses a risk to their physical and mental health.”
With this partnership, she said, Keystone First and the legal clinic will be “better able to identify tenants in need of legal assistance and provide an immediate, community-based access point for justice.”
Keystone First is a product offered by Vista Health Plan, an affiliate of Independence Blue Cross, in five southeastern counties. The Legal Clinic for Disabled provides free civil legal services to low-income people with disabilities, or deaf and hard of hearing in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.
The Legal Clinic has been able in some cases to stave off eviction, or refer members to the city’s rental assistance or eviction diversion programs or negotiate a settlement on the member’s behalf, Mullin said.
“Keeping people in a stable home is a good strategy to keep them out of hospital emergency rooms, shelters, and to promote better overall health outcomes,” Brabson said.