Putting doctors, hospitals and lawyers together may not sound like a recipe for improving health outcomes. But the Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children (CMLPC) at the Legal Council For Health Justice is providing a thriving example of the great potential of these models and is one of the many great programs you are making possible through your support of the Investing in Justice Campaign. CMLPC’s focus is on serving low-income families at participating pediatric hospital and medical center sites to address legal issues impacting health outcomes, such as public benefits, special education, housing, immigration, guardianship and more.
The ability for a doctor to easily refer his or her patient to a lawyer in order to remedy outstanding issues affecting health is a unique intersection in healthcare and law known as a medical-legal partnership. Not limited to doctors, lawyers also rely on the expertise of therapists, social workers, psychologists and various medical workers. Together, they help families identify and remove barriers to health.
The clients we serve face so many barriers, says Sarah O’Connor, a senior attorney at CMLPC. Our medical-legal partnership promotes and facilitates collaboration with our clients’ medical providers. What we have accomplished by working together would be extremely difficult to accomplish without their support, expertise, and advocacy.
The Legal Council for Health Justice, previously known as the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, just formally changed its name this week to reflect the recent addition of the CMLPC. The Legal Council also runs a second partnership called the SSI Homeless Outreach Project to help serve the needs of homeless people with mental illness.
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We have a special lens on a whole host of health policy issues that are impacting these patients, added CMLPC Director Amy Zimmerman.
Dr. Goldstein, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago, remembers feeling helpless before working within the CMLPC partnership. One of her families had their windows boarded up and was ordered by the landlord not to use the air conditioning during a heat wave. Goldstein used her lunch break to call up any legal aid group she could find. It’s really hard to be sitting in an office with a family and hear the problems that you can’t really address, she says. Now, with the touch of a button in the referral system, she can instantly connect patients with legal help. I consider it as if I’m sending them to the cardiologist I trust.
Goldstein is also involved in training residents to ask the right questions to trigger conversations about social health. She regularly asks patients if they have enough food at home, how the kids are doing in school, and if there’s adequate heat at home. Other common issues that create significant stress and anxiety on a family are immigration and employment. Housing and environmental issues can compromise health and the effectiveness of medicine. Lead poisoning, for example, affects one in four kids in Illinois. Mold or standing water at home can limit the effectiveness of medication or worsen a medical condition like asthma. In such instances, legal help can be viewed as preventative medicine.
Another large area of CMLPC’s work is improving access to education. This can be securing transportation to school, establishing or revising individualized education plans (IEPs), and obtaining supportive services for students with special needs.
When something hits, when systems start to fail them, the medical team is an active participant in ensuring that they are connected to the legal care that we provide, said Zimmerman. And they make our arguments that much more powerful, that we can bolster them with a medical opinion.