Doctors and lawyers

Valley Voice

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McDill “Huck” Boyd sounded one of the first alarms a half-century ago: Rural Kansas was losing doctors and the state needed to find ways to bring new ones to farm country.
Today, Marla Luckert, Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, says rural Kansas has lost too many lawyers. Eighty percent of Kansas attorneys now practice in six urban counties. Luckert has created the Rural Justice Initiative Committee to confront the issue and revive the country lawyer in Kansas.
Boyd’s appeal helped bring family practice out of the cellar of medicine, promote it as a newly recognized, board-certified specialty and encourage young medical students to become country doctors. Luckert wants to do the same for lawyers.
It didn’t hurt that Boyd by the 1970s was a prominent newspaper publisher in Phillipsburg and a powerful Republican who gave life to the careers of celebrated Kansas politicians including Keith Sebelius, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. Boyd was the party’s national committeeman, a country politician with the savvy of a city boss, skilled at pulling strings in Topeka and Washington. (In 1976 he was Director of Security for the Republican National Convention that nominated Dole for vice-president.)
In the early 1970s, Boyd’s campaign for more country doctors moved in fits and starts, but over the years acquired broad support. Family Practice had become a specialty in American medicine. It lives today in the University of Kansas branch medical school in Wichita and at the school of rural medicine at Salina.
Among other specialties, rural doctors held uncommon weight. They often became fixtures in a small town, involved in their communities. Their children were in school. They came to know the kinships of a place, its feuds and friendships and interdependence, and were trusted to heal its sick and injured. The thought was to revive the doctor as a community principal – healer, father confessor, life coach, minister to the sick and hypochondriac alike, one who saw all, heard all, and spoke none of it.
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Chief Justice Luckert holds a similar notion for lawyers. She signed an order early last month creating the 35-member Rural Justice committee, saying that in some parts, access to justice in rural Kansas has been cut off. The Wichita-Sedgwick area and the state’s five-county northeast metroplex, have two attorneys per 535 residents. For the other 99 counties the ratio is one for every 805.
Samples of trouble: Wichita and Hodgeman Counties in the far west have no attorneys; five other rural counties have only one practicing attorney. Eleven others each have only two practicing lawyers.
Across the state’s rural stretches the system of seeking redress for grievances is unbalanced, financially inaccessible, Luckert says. Citizens may have no lawyer, or lack resources for navigating a complex system and legal procedure for settling trouble.
Needs abound: business contracts, wills and estates, divorce, child welfare, landlord-tenant issues, property leases, mineral and water rights, land use and zoning, immigration troubles, gay rights, civil rights and more. School districts, and city and county governments also need lawyers.
For rural criminal courts, the county attorney, elected and underpaid, is sometimes the greenest lawyer in town, if there is a lawyer. For the defense, the large farm cities ‒ Hays, Dodge and Garden Cities, Liberal ‒ may have experienced lawyers but elsewhere in rural Kansas defense attorneys are rare, if at all. Over the spare townships of the plains, there is a difference between the right to an attorney and the ability to find one.
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The family doctor has returned in some places, but finds rural medicine in the strictures of corporate medicine, the grip of big pharma and the squeeze of welfare politics. In 2015, the Kansas Hospital Association reported that 31 of the state’s 107 rural hospitals were “vulnerable” and at risk of closing. In October that year, Mercy Hospital, a 41-bed institution in Independence, closed; 17other hospitals serving rural areas were at risk of closing.
Of the nine hospitals that have closed since 2006, six have been shuttered in the past five years. A disparity remains between family medicine and rural health care.
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The 35-member Rural Justice committee is headed by Supreme Court Justice K.J. Wall and is composed of judges, lawyers, rural legislators and lay professionals who work with the judiciary. Among points of study are rural-urban population shifts, demographic trends and social factors ‒ why young adults reject small town life ‒ and examine current rural attorney recruitment projects. The committee is to submit a report, with recommendations, to the Supreme Court in 18 months ‒ in time with the 2024 wheat harvest.

SOURCEJohn Marshall
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John Marshall is the retired editor-owner of the Lindsborg (Kan.) News-Record (2001-2012), and for 27 years (1970-1997) was a reporter, editor and publisher for publications of the Hutchinson-based Harris Newspaper Group. He has been writing about Kansas people, government and culture for more than 40 years, and currently writes a column for the News-Record and The Rural Messenger. He lives in Lindsborg with his wife, Rebecca, and their 21 year-old African-Grey parrot, Themis.

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