Legal Services: Recent Accomplishments
For 25 years, Whitman-Walker Legal Services has helped thousands of persons living with HIV/AIDS in the Washington metropolitan area to understand and enforce their rights in the workplace; obtain access to affordable and nondiscriminatory health care; protect their medical privacy; obtain much-needed disability income through Social Security and insurance policies if they were too sick to work; navigate U.S. immigration laws if they were non-citizens; safeguard their own and their families’ futures with appropriate wills, advance health care directives and powers of attorney; and obtain relief from debt. In recent years we have expanded our services to HIV-negative medical clients of Whitman-Walker, and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons encountering discrimination or needing assistance with health or disability insurance, public benefits, immigration, or wills and advance health care directives.
In the 12 months ending November 2011, our staff and volunteers assisted 2,480 individuals and families in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Northern Virginia on 4,031 new legal matters.
Between mid-October and Dec. 7, staff and volunteer lawyers helped more than 320 individuals with the year-end "open enrollment" process for the Medicare prescription drug (Part D) program - an all-time record. Each year, our clients need a careful review of plan terms for the coming year to make sure that their medication needs will be met at the lowest possible cost and with the fewest restrictions. For example, earlier this month a volunteer determined that the plan in which "Ryan" had been enrolled by Social Security would have cost him $13,100 in 2012; the volunteer found another plan that will cost him only $84.50. Another client, "George", is facing a complex kidney transplant procedure early in 2012; a Whitman-Walker staff lawyer changed his enrollment from a plan with very significant restrictions on medications to a plan with essentially no restrictions, greatly relieving George's stress.
A Whitman-Walker staff lawyer represented "Margaret," a woman who was fired from her job after she was hospitalized. After Whitman-Walker filed a discrimination charge, Margaret got her job back with compensation for her time out of work - in time to pay her rent and prevent eviction. Sadly, after she returned to her job, Margaret was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The Whitman-Walker lawyer helped her obtain Family and Medical Act leave and short-term disability benefits from her employer, which enabled Margaret to stay in her home until she died.
Whitman-Walker volunteer attorneys obtained a grant of asylum from the U.S. Immigration Court for "Elena," a lesbian from Bosnia and Herzegovina who was persecuted because of her sexual orientation and her work for LGBT rights. Because of her visibility in organizing the 2008 and 2009 Queer Sarajevo Festivals, Elena had to live in hiding, change apartments regularly, and wear disguises in public. Although she faced numerous death threats, the police told Elena that they could not protect her. Now living in security in the Washington area, Elena continues to be active in LGBT issues. Over the past year, volunteer and staff lawyers have successfully represented asylum clients like Elena from 17 different countries.
A Whitman-Walker staff attorney helped "Katya," an HIV-positive Ethiopian national living in Virginia, to obtain U.S. citizenship. Shortly after being granted asylum because of persecution in her home country, Katya was diagnosed with AIDS, and Whitman-Walker attorneys helped her apply for SSI. Since federal law limits SSI eligibility for asylees to seven years, it was important for Katya to become a U.S. citizen in order to continue to be able access her SSI payments, her only source of income. Thanks to efforts of the Whitman-Walker lawyer, Katya naturalized on the first day she became eligible, only three days before her SSI eligibility was to expire. Katya takes great pride in her new status as a citizen, and she has peace of mind that she will continue to be able to meet her basic financial needs despite her health challenges.
In the past 12 months our staff saved the health insurance of more than 90 individuals and families by helping them access public programs in DC and Maryland that pay the insurance premiums of low-income people with HIV/AIDS. For example, when "Carl" lost his job, a Whitman-Walker lawyer helped him stay on the health plan through COBRA and enrolled him in the DC program to pay his premiums. Several weeks later, Carl was unable to pick up the refills of his HIV medications because his insurance had been cancelled. The insurance company had overlooked the payment that the DC Government had made on Carl's behalf. Initially, the insurer told Carl's lawyer that their records would be updated within a week - leaving him without his HIV medications in the meantime. Thanks to vigorous advocacy up the insurer's management chain, his insurance was reinstated promptly and Carl was able to receive his medications the next day.
In the last 12 months Whitman-Walker attorneys helped 50 transgender women and men change their legal names and/or gender markers on drivers' licenses, passports, Social Security records, birth certificates and other legal records to reflect their chosen names and self-identified gender - by obtaining needed court orders and by successfully negotiating the complicated requirements of various federal, DC, Maryland and Virginia agencies. Having identity documents, Social Security, and other legal records that accurately reflect one's actual name and gender is critical for a transgender individual, who lives with pervasive stigma and misunderstanding, and who frequently encounters discrimination in employment, medical care, and housing, and harassment from police and other officials.
Our work is only possible because of the generous financial and pro bono support of the Washington legal community. For more information about our program or how you might become more involved, please contact Daniel Bruner, Director of Legal Services, at 202.939.7628 or e-mail.