Two non-profit pilot programs won approval this week under Utah’s regulatory sandbox to provide non-lawyer legal assistance to individuals with medical debt.
These are only the second and third non-profit projects to be approved to participate in the sandbox and the first in the nation to empower non-lawyers go give limited-scope legal advice about medical debt, according to Stacy Butler, director of the Innovation for Justice Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, which helped develop the pilots.
Both programs were approved May 7 by the Utah Supreme Court’s Office of Legal Innovation, which oversees the sandbox and reviews and approves applicants.
One of the two programs approved this week, the Community Health Worker pilot, will train two community health workers (CHWs) at Holy Cross Ministries, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization in Salt Lake City.
They will be trained to serve as bilingual medical debt legal advocates (MDLAs), extending the services they already provide within the community to enable them to offer limit-scope legal advice about medical debt and collateral issues.
The second program, the Medical Debt Diversion pilot, will train another two MDLAs, one at the AAA Fair Credit Foundation and one at People’s Legal Aid, both non-profit organizations in Salt Lake City.
Under this pilot, defendants in medical debt collection actions will be notified of the availability of free MDLA assistance at the time they receive a summons from the Utah District Court.
The MDLAs will be able to provide services on behalf of debtors such as debt and settlements negotiations with creditor attorneys, assistance preparing answers and counterclaims, and pre-litigation support.
Butler said that Innovation for Justice Program (i4J) helped design the pilots based on a nine-month research and collaborative design effort that included the participation of a range of individuals who have experience in medical debt, including as debtors, healthcare providers, legal and policy professionals, and others.
i4J will provide the MDLA training as an online, modular, bilingual curriculum.
In Utah, nearly 22,000 lawsuits are filed each year against people experiencing medical debt, which is a third of all debt-collection cases filed in the state, Butler said. But traditional legal services are not equipped to assist with this.
The Utah Supreme Court approved the sandbox last August, setting it up as a two-year pilot program to license and oversee new forms of legal providers and services.
Last week, the court voted to extend the sandbox to seven years, through the end of August 2027.
According to the Office of Legal Services Innovation’s website, it has so far approved 28 entities to provide legal services as part of the sandbox.