Securing Legal Rights for People Living with HIV in North Carolina
REACH funding enables grantee to meet a critical need for low-income individuals
“One of my most rewarding Southern REACH cases was for a client who cut herself while working in a fast-food restaurant. There was a significant amount of blood, so she ended up disclosing her status to warn her co-workers. Shortly after, the restaurant changed her position to one that offered fewer hours. We filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which resulted in a settlement of $7,500. That doesn’t sound like much, but her annual income the previous year was only $9,500. If I ever forget about the good that we do, or the need for our services, I remember that case.”
—Soreé Finley, Attorney
Southern REACH: Legal Rights and Human Dignity
Southern REACH funding enables Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (LSSP) to offer free legal advice and assistance to people living with HIV. Assistance must be specifically related to clients’ HIV status, such as issues surrounding estate planning, public benefits, employment rights, confidentiality, discrimination, immigration, and standby guardianship. Additionally, eligible clients must earn less than 300% of the federal poverty level.
Educating the HIV community about their legal rights, however, is often a critical first step. Thus, outreach is an equally important part of LSSP’s Southern REACH program.
For example, LSSP recently helped a client, whose pharmacy delivered his HIV medications to his neighbor by mistake, essentially disclosing his status. “My job was to contact the pharmacy and file a HIPAA complaint,” says LSSP attorney Soreé Finley. As a result of Finley’s work, the pharmacy changed its policies to protect the privacy of its customers.
This outcome wouldn’t have happened if a local community-based organization hadn’t invited Finley to speak to a group of people living with HIV about some of the subtle ways that breach of confidentiality can occur.
“[The pharmacy client] contacted me soon after and asked, ‘Was this OK?’ People don’t always know,” says Finley. “They have a feeling something might not be right, but they think there is nothing they can do about it.”
People have a feeling something might not be right, but they think there is nothing they can do about it.
Getting the Word Out
During the three years that LSSP has been receiving Southern REACH funding, the organization has provided legal services for 85 clients.
This assistance has been invaluable, giving people living with HIV the peace of mind that comes with knowing their legal rights and providing for their families. “I was about to have major surgery,” says one LSSP client. “I was concerned because I didn’t want linger on a ventilator. I went to LSSP to get a medical advance directive and to draw up a will,” he explains.
“It felt good just to know that I could get things done my way and that my family was on board with me and what I wanted,” he adds.
LSSP representatives have also created educational materials, such as brochures, to educate the HIV community about critical issues impacting their lives, such as employment, immigration, guardianship, and estate planning issues. These materials are available in both English and Spanish.
The brochures play a central role in LSSP’s outreach to the HIV community because they address fundamental issues that people living with HIV often encounter. They answer basic questions such as:
- Can an employer ask about my HIV status?
- Can an employer require a physical, which would reveal my HIV status?
- Can I lose my job for missing work or coming in late because of my HIV status?
- Can I be deported because of my HIV status?
- Can I be denied medical treatment because of my HIV status?
- What is standby guardianship and why would I need it?
- What if I change my mind about guardianship?
- What are the benefits of preparing a will or living will?
- Why do I need a power of attorney?
- Will I lose control over my own affairs?
Distributing the information as widely as possible has been a key strategy. That means sending it to HIV case managers, but also to locations where people don’t necessarily receive case management services, such as private doctor’s offices. LSSP also reaches out to community-based organizations as much as possible.
“You have to go wherever the clients are,” says Finley. “You have to find the groups and offices where they are. Just because they have HIV doesn’t mean they’re in counseling or that they participate in support groups,” Finley says. “The brochures have definitely helped us get the word out,” she adds.
You have to go wherever the clients are.
Outreach is also challenging because many of LSSP’s clients live in rural areas. One strategy that helps LSSP reach people in these geographically dispersed locations involves performing search engine optimization for its website content. That way, clients in remote locations searching online about legal issues will connect with LSSP.
“We have definitely had to get creative in how we get through to people,” says Finley.
Ultimately, helping vulnerable individuals who are often misjudged and overlooked is the goal. And REACH funding is enabling LSSP to meet that critical need. “Without REACH, they would have nowhere else to go,” says Finley.