Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Unlikely Partnership That’s Helping the Poor

December 31, 2014
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The Unlikely Partnership That’s Helping the Poor
In addition to standard health services, many medical facilities are now offering legal aid to patients in need. John Moore/Getty Images
"Bad health can lead to economic chaos."

When low-income patients end up in the hospital with a medical emergency, it might not only be doctors, but also lawyers who save their lives.

Many medical facilities now have onsite attorneys offering free legal aid to such patients. This service makes sense, since issues such as eviction, homelessness and difficulty attaining services for a disabled or developmentally delayed child can negatively impact a patient’s health.

This model of partnership between the medical and legal professions began in Boston in 1993, and since then, it’s expanded to 260 locations in 38 states, according to NBC News.

The Cox family of Cleveland is an example of how these programs are effective. Tony Cox had a heart attack when he fell off a ladder during a roofing job. Out of work, he fell behind on his mortgage payments, and his family was on the verge of eviction when a legal services attorney stepped in and worked with the bank to renegotiate their loan. “We were getting ready to be homeless, to move in with family,” Donna, his wife, says. “We would have been separated.”

Colleen Cotter, director of Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, tells NBC News, “When we really look at the issues in our clients’ lives, there’s almost always a health issue involved. Poverty is unhealthy, and bad health can lead to economic chaos. I see everything we do as increasing the health and communities we serve.”

Pediatrician Robert Needleman of Case Western University Medical School says, “In general, medicine does not spend much time on the parts of patients’ lives that we can’t fix.” Needleman is striving to change that, however, by instructing medical students to chat with patients about stressors in their lives and issuing referrals to free legal aid when appropriate.

Not only do these partnerships between lawyers and doctors save people from eviction and bring about other positive changes in their lives, but they also save money. In Pennsylvania, Lancaster General Hospital established a clinic for “super-utilizers” (i.e. people who come to the emergency room frequently). When they added a lawyer to the services the facility offered, the patients’ use of the health care system declined by half.

As Megan Sprecher, a Legal Aid Society of Cleveland attorney says about one client she helped avoid homelessness by obtaining a tax refund that had been lost in the mail, “It was a very simple issue, but these systems can be hard to navigate if you’re not familiar with them.”

MORE: When it Comes to Helping Homeless Vets, Could Thinking Small be the Answer?

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