By Michael Walters, Legal Hotline Managing Attorney, Pro Seniors, Inc. and Project Specialist, CERA
Recently, the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy began a national study on measuring more detailed outcomes on a legal hotline. Currently, Elder Law of Michigan, the Florida Senior Legal Helpline, and the Pro Seniors’ Legal Hotline in Ohio are participating in the study. The involvement of these three hotlines is significant, as they represent several of the highest volume senior hotlines in the United States (in 2014, these three hotlines closed 12,817 cases, representing approximately one-quarter of the total number of senior legal hotline cases closed in the United States for 2014). The number of cases and clients reached through these hotlines should provide a representative sample of senior hotlines throughout the U.S.
Measuring detailed outcomes on a hotline is a challenging task because hotline calls often come when the problem is first identified. In areas such as debt collection, one call is often sufficient to resolve the client’s problem. But in other areas, such as eviction, legal advice can “set the table” for later resolution of the problem. Fortunately, hotline callers often follow up for more advice as their legal issue develops, and it is hoped that we can capture more specific detailed outcomes on follow up calls.
The study, in conjunction with the United States Administration on Aging, officially began May 1. Data is therefore very preliminary. The hotline attorneys at Pro Seniors began experimenting with capturing detailed outcomes in preparation for the study in April.
Kari Deming, formerly of CERA, looked at possible detailed outcomes that could apply in the senior hotline context and developed a proposed list. The list includes a set of general hotline outcomes as well as possible detailed outcomes specific to particular legal problem codes. We also added an additional outcome; “No Hotline Outcome.” This allows us to be assured that the hotline attorney considered detailed outcomes and found no detailed outcome to be appropriate. Lack of any detailed outcome without selection of the “No Hotline Outcome” choice will allow us to remove cases from the study where the lack of a detailed outcome selected is more likely the result of an accidental omission. The list of possible outcomes can be found here: Hotline Outcomes List.
At Pro Seniors, we have the ability to select more than one outcome, through the use of “Add a New Outcome or Award” fields in our case management system. The field allows the hotline attorney to select more than one detailed outcome when appropriate. It also allows a hotline attorney to add a new detailed outcome on a follow up call. Most importantly, it continues to allow us to use the general outcomes that have been historically required by our funders.
So far, not surprisingly, data from all three programs indicates that general detailed outcomes are selected with overwhelming frequency over more specific detailed outcomes. In the hotline context, “Accuracy of public benefits eligibility confirmed/corrected” would be appropriate when explaining Medicaid eligibility to a client. “Income increased (current/new program eligibility)” would be rare, and would more likely apply to a full service unit. So far, all three programs record the three outcomes listed below with the most frequency:
- Improved understanding of legal rights/entitlements/responsibilities/obligations.
- Increased awareness of ways to avoid or resolve legal problems.
- Maximized ability to use self help tools.
It is possible, depending on the program, that more than one detailed outcome may have been recorded on a case. It is hoped that as follow up calls occur, more specific detailed outcomes may become apparent. The above three outcomes account for substantially more than fifty percent of the total detailed outcomes recorded at all three programs. Beyond those three detailed outcomes, there are a few variances. For example, Pro Seniors records the outcome, “legal representation secured,” with regularity, probably as a result of our modest means referral program. Michigan frequently records the outcome, “improved ability to effectively access and participate in the resolution process to achieve just outcomes,” and Florida often “created a plan to obtain public benefits,” probably as a result of brief service cases.
The benefits of recording detailed outcomes should be balanced against the additional time constraints placed on the hotline attorney when recording detailed outcomes. As noted by Jan May, Executive Director at AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, in Tempering the Need to Measure Outcomes with Common Sense: Hotlines as a Case in Point, MIE Journal, Volume XXVI, No. 3, Fall 2012, pg. 45, an over-emphasis on measurement can actually reduce the amount of service provided to clients if the hotline is not careful in how the tools are made available to the hotline attorney. It is important that the tools available are efficient, and that the hotlines attorneys are trained not to devote an excessive amount of time into considering which outcome is the “best” fit for the client. So far, we have received positive feedback from the hotline attorneys at Pro Seniors about detailed outcomes.
It is hoped that through the capture of detailed outcomes, senior helplines can help produce evidence-based data to show the value of the advice given by senior helplines. Intuitively, we know from client feedback that we are a critical legal resource for seniors, but this study should allow us to produce more detailed data to demonstrate that value we have to our clients.