GEORGIA’S RURAL COMMUNITIES SUFFER FROM LACK OF LEGAL AND MEDICAL SERVICES
Recently, the Fulton County Daily Report featured a story on legal deserts in Georgia where 60 of Georgia’s southern and rural counties have 10 or fewer lawyers. Seven of those counties had no licensed attorneys. Those counties without private legal representation are: Baker, Clay, McIntosh, Schley and Webster. The Georgia Legal Services Program, a state-wide non-profit that provides legal services for low income clients, reports that the number of counties without any representation is growing. While rural populations are shrinking, access to justice still strains those remaining in these communities. Many rural citizens represent themselves and have to travel outside their county for circuit judges to hear cases. The Georgia State University Center for Access to Justice estimates that there are over a million unrepresented citizens in the current state legal system.
Some proposed solutions to legal deserts are hosted legal clinics and self-help centers to aid the unrepresented in legal cases; simplifying court forms; providing financial incentives for pro bono practice; and offering a series of videos with step by step instructions for family law cases.
Medical analysts define a medical desert as a region where access to medical centers and/or a hospital requires at least a 60 minute drive. The Georgia Department of Health maps those medically underserved communities. Rural counties consist of populations under 50,000. Georgia has 118 rural counties. Of those 37 have hospitals, 30 of which are critical access hospitals and 54 have no hospitals. There are 92 rural health clinics located in 57 counties. Ten counties have no rural health clinic. One hundred and thirty-seven counties experience shortages in mental health professional staffings.
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the disparities in outcomes between urban and rural centers. Rural residents experienced increased risk of COVID-19 and severe illness from it. Some solutions to medical deserts include offsetting medical school costs for physicians as an incentive to practice in underserved communities; increasing opportunities for non-physician providers such as nurse practitioners and dental health aide therapists to provide basic health care services and increasing telemedicine and mobile clinic health care options.