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It’ll be a double first when lawyers at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., start providing pro bono help to kids on Medicaid next month. It will mark the debut of the first formal pro bono program at the global retailer and the first time that a corporate law department has taken the lead role in a medical-legal partnership (MLP). Wal-Mart announced the MLP with Arkansas Children’s Hospital in June. The company is headquartered in the northwestern Arkansas city of Bentonville; the hospital is in Little Rock. This summer Wal-Mart has been holding training sessions for its in-house attorneys, and in August the lawyers will start taking on cases. They will be working on Medicaid applications for the pediatric patients at ACH and will be helping families who need special education accommodations for their children. “These families are already in a traumatic situation because their child is sick,” says Jeff Gearhart, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary. He adds that while they are already getting assistance from the staff at ACH, the company hopes to give them more help. “Wal-Mart is always focused on giving back to communities,” says Gearhart. “This is a structured way for our lawyers to be a part of that.” While the program is voluntary, “we’ve been getting great interest from our attorneys,” Gearhart says. “Our hope is that we’ll have over 50 percent of the attorneys in the department participating.” The company has 140 lawyers in Bentonville. The first MLP in the country was created in 1993 at Boston Medical Center. Since then, MLPs have been set up at more than 235 health care institutions nationwide. In most instances, a local legal services group provides or coordinates the legal help. Ellen Lawton, the former executive director of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, helped Wal-Mart develop its MLP. Lawton stepped down from the center in April to take on other projects, one of which is serving as a consultant to Wal-Mart on the partnership with Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “The family of a child who needs Medicaid assistance—whether for additional doctor’s appointments, or for special equipment such as a wheelchair—can face a daunting bureaucratic process,” Lawton explains. “And some processes can be too daunting even for the social workers and legal aid attorneys helping the family.” That’s where Wal-Mart’s lawyers will be able to help, says Lawton, who holds a J.D. from Northwestern University. “A very common advocacy tactic is to write a very effective letter that requests services,” she explains. “And that’s not a skill that’s taught in medical school.” “That seems like a simple thing from an attorney’s perspective, but it’s actually a critical skill for families seeking services,” Lawton continues. “We call it preventive legal intervention.” While Wal-Mart attorneys have worked on pro bono efforts in the past, Gearhart says that the legal department hasn’t had a coordinated program till now. “We’ve been looking for something more structured for two years—our attorneys were asking for it.” Gearhart gives credit for conceiving and developing the company’s MLP to a team led by Lori Chumbler, associate general counsel for legal administration and external relations. Chumbler, who reviews grant proposals for the Walmart Foundation as part of her job, says that she first became aware of MLPs after reviewing a grant request from Legal Aid of Arkansas, which had a MLP with a regional health provider. “I began researching MLPs, and was ultimately connected with the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership,” Chumbler says. “Arkansas Children’s Hospital had also reached out to the center with a desire to find a legal partner, so the center put us together, and the idea just took off after that.” The only pediatric medical facility in the state, Arkansas Children’s Hospital currently has 316 beds, but will expand to 375 next year. Approximately 60 percent of its patients are on Medicaid, according to Bonnie Taylor, who served as medical director of Arkansas Children’s Hospital for 10 years until returning to clinical practice last December. Wal-Mart officials say that they anticipate helping around 300 families in the project’s first year. “The [number of] times when we would need a lawyer would be fairly high,” says Taylor. “We have a great group of people in our financial department and among our social workers, but when families go home, it gets harder to help them through things.” Taylor explains that while the hospital’s staff is good at helping with immediate needs, they’re “not as influential” with longterm needs—helping a family get Medicaid to pay for a home ventilator, for example. “It’s a process of letter after letter, phone call after phone call,” Taylor says. Steven Schulman, the national pro bono coordinator for Akin Gump, says that he’s been consulting with Wal-Mart about developing a pro bono program for the past two years. “We’ve been providing structural advice to Wal-Mart about how they’re going to manage things,” says Schulman, a partner in Akin Gump’s Washington, D.C., office. Schulman adds that the firm helped design and implement the training sessions for Wal-Mart’s MLP, which began in May. Schulman has high praise for GC Gearhart: “He spent three hours in a training we did. He came in, sat in the third or fourth row, paid attention, didn’t check his Blackberry,” Schulman says. “The leadership is really coming from the top.” Gearhart’s is hoping to expand Wal-Mart’s MLP work nationwide. “Wal-Mart wants to be the catalyst for a network of attorneys who can be part of medical-legal partnerships with children’s hospitals across the country,” he says. And Gearhart has another goal: to get a thousand lawyers involved in the network. That means Wal-Mart can’t do it alone. “I’d love for any other companies to join in with us, whether a supplier or competitor,” he says. “This is not an exclusive Wal-Mart program. We want to set an example for other companies.”

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