Moving America Forward

How Lawyers, Not Doctors, Can Cure the Illnesses of Many Low-Income Families

July 30, 2014
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How Lawyers, Not Doctors, Can Cure the Illnesses of Many Low-Income Families
John Moore/Getty Images
A physician isn't needed to write this prescription.

Where you work; the air you breathe; what you eat; the state of your housing; your vulnerability to crime, injury and discrimination and of course, your stress levels can all be reasons to why you’re not feeling well. So it’s no real surprise that, according to The New York Times, living in poverty can literally cause severe illnesses among low-income families.

And although you may think that a doctor can prescribe a cure, lawyers can actually solve the conditions that caused your ailment. Which is why hospitals across the United States are establishing a medical-legal partnership to help low-income families manage the stresses that are apparent in their daily lives.

When families came to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center because their children were suffering from asthma, doctors told them that using air conditioning would help alleviate the problem. But they couldn’t, the New York Times reported. These families provided medical personnel with a letter from their landlord ordering tenants to not use air-conditioners because he didn’t want to pay the electric bills. The letter also stated if they were caught doing so, they would be evicted.

That’s when the Cincinnati Child Health-Law Partnership (Child HeLP) stepped in.

“Our lawyers were getting the same problem referred over and over in a short period of time,” Eliane Fink, the co-leader of Child HeLP said. “They looked at the map — they were all in the same neighborhood. They looked to see who owned the buildings. In this case we hit bingo — the same owner.”

Child HeLP wrote to NY Group, a Brooklyn-based company that owned 18 buildings in Cincinnati and Dayton, whose tenants ended up at Child HeLP because of mold, water damage, structural perils, rodents or bug infestations. In the complaint, Child HeLP included statements by physicians explaining the health impacts of NY Group’s legal violations.

Child HeLP sued on behalf of one severely disabled boy with a tracheotomy who needed air conditioning to survive. NY Group quickly made the repairs and were done in a few weeks.

Ultimately, Child HeLP’s goal is less about curing individual patients and more about improving the living conditions for tenants who lived in the buildings. Ellen Lawton, co-principal investigator at the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, said that doctors and lawyers work together to help low-income families. And it is true that doctors make legal work easier.

“The health of the kids changes the advocacy conversation,” she said. “It goes from ‘this is the law and you have to comply’ to a conversation that’s about community well-being and health. And when you’re able to use a clinical viewpoint rather than a legal framework, you’re able to resolve the issue much more rapidly.”

Such partnerships can revolve issues for many low-income families enduring horrendous living conditions. If more partnerships exist, there will be fewer hospital visits, less prescription medicine and of course, more acceptable situations for families — especially with children who are more vulnerable to illnesses.

“So much of child health is the result of poor social and physical living conditions for kids — food on the table, shelter, quality education,” said Robert S. Kahn, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s who is the medical co-leader of Child HeLP. “So much of what we do in pediatrics is driven by these broader well-being issues for the family. We do much better when we partner with groups that have that as a mission.”

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