Legal Hospice of Texas has slowly transformed from an agency that helped clients end their lives with dignity to one that saves lives
Legal Hospice of Texas Legal Director Joel Lazarine has been with the agency for 20 years. He volunteered for LHT for several years before actually joining the staff, when his own partner was diagnosed with HIV and needed to get his legal paperwork in order.
Lazarine said in the early years, many of the calls he fielded were from people asking how they should approach their employer about their HIV diagnosis.
“They were very afraid,” Lazarine said. “Afraid they’d lose their insurance. This was before the ADA.”
(The American with Disabilities Act gives federal civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion. People with HIV are covered by the ADA.)
Before ADA protections, Lazarine said many people who contacted the Legal Hospice were afraid to even give attorneys their full names. He recently came across some old files simply marked “John #1,” “John #2” and “John #3.”
In the early years of LHT, then called Dallas Legal Hospice, every case was handled as an emergency, Lazarine said. Simple legal tasks like writing a will were often done under pressure because the document had to be completed and signed while the person was still “of sound mind.”
Many people dealing with AIDS-related illnesses dealt with the disease by not thinking about death until they were very sick. Lazarine said those wills and powers of attorney had to be drafted quickly before the client was no longer able to sign the papers.
Since its founding, LHT’s mission has expanded from just serving people in Dallas with HIV to also providing legal services to anyone with a terminal illness, and the organization now covers a 16-county area of North Texas.
Executive Director Tony Lokash said a team of volunteer attorneys handles mostly estate planning cases, while staff attorneys deal with more complicated employment and disability cases. He said he’d love to expand his volunteer base so that he had one or two attorneys in each of the counties in LHT’s jurisdiction.
Lazarine said in the mid-90s as more people got on medication, the case load shifted. Today, about a third of the cases are estate planning cases. Another third deal with employment, insurance, housing and credit issues.
As HIV has become a manageable disease, obtaining disability and getting social security benefits has become more difficult and those are the final third of the cases LHT handles. Originally, much of the legal work by LHT helped people with AIDS die with dignity and helped a surviving partner remain in his own house. Now, some of the work LHT is able to do is saving people’s lives.
Lokash described a case involving veteran’s assistance.
“Dave is a U.S. Army veteran with AIDS,” Lokash said. “He came to LHT asking for assistance with a disability claim he had filed with the Veteran’s Administration.”
At the time of his enlistment, Dave tested negative, but his disability claim was denied. The V.A. ruled it as a pre-existing condition. He became homeless and failed to file a timely appeal.
When LHT obtained Dave’s V.A. file, the HIV test information was missing. An attorney investigated, located the lab that does the Army’s HIV testing and got a copy of the original negative test.
Based on the new evidence, LHT got the case reopened and he’s currently going through a V.A. disability review.
Lazarine told the story of another current client caught in a seemingly no-win situation.
“Robert came to us bed-bound, unable to advocate for himself and needing a double hip replacement because of bilateral AIDS-related hip necrosis,” he said.
Robert was visiting hospital ERs regularly for pain management, but he lacked insurance and lived in Collin County, which has no public hospital and refuses to pay Parkland to care for its indigent residents.
“He came to us trying to secure a way to pay for his much-needed surgery,” Lazarine said.
When LHT helped him reapply for Medicaid and Social Security, Robert was denied again because his condition was operable and not permanently disabling. Working with a doctor, LHT got him the necessary documentation to get approval for disability and insurance to cover his past and future hospital visits.
Currently he’s waiting for Parkland to schedule the surgery that will be covered by his insurance. After surgery, doctors expect him to walk again.
Recently, Lazarine helped another client collect money as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy. The client is HIV-positive and helped take care of someone else battling AIDS. They were friends, but not partners, and the client expected to receive nothing when his friend died.
After his friend’s death, the client found out he was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. But to collect, he’d need a copy of his friend’s death certificate. The friend’s family refused to cooperate, possibly hoping they’d collect the money themselves, Lazarine said.
Lazarine said because the process was lengthy, the client was ready to give up, but he convinced his client that a standard life insurance policy was usually $5,000 and often $10,000, so it was worth pursuing.
Through its connections, LHT was able to obtain a death certificate from the state and the client received his settlement — $200,000.
Lazarine said the money changed his client’s life. Unable to do his former job because of his own HIV-related condition, the client is back in school, training for work that’s less stressful and less physically demanding.
Over its 25-year history, LHT has helped more than 13,000 people. That doesn’t include the hundreds of calls they get every month from people asking a simple question or needing a referral.
Despite the agency having expanded its mission to serve those with any terminal illness, about 90 percent of LHT clients are HIV-positive.
In the past year, LHT has helped more than 600 people, and Lokash said the value of those services is estimated at $611,000 delivered free of charge to the community.
Despite that, Lazarine wishes he could do more because of “the amount of need out there,” he said.
Former LHT Executive Director Roger Wedell said Lazarine’s priority has always been doing what’s best for the client.
“He could be doing a lot of different things making mega-bucks,” Wedell said. “But that’s not where his passion or dedication is.”
Lazarine said he gets something from working at LHT that he’d never see working elsewhere.
“The gratitude of our clients,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 19, 2014.