Closing the Healthcare Gap: Medical-Legal Partnership Opens a New Door

Healthcare in the United States has been a major issue for the past several decades. Regardless of whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, working or retired – the cost of healthcare has escalated exponentially in the past 30 years.

In 2013, the year before the Affordable Care Act began, more than 42 million citizens were uninsured – that’s about 13% of the population. Since then, reports show that number has dropped by approximately 16.5 million people

But what about the 25.5 million Americans that still don’t have health insurance? Many are uninsured because they still can’t afford it, are ineligible in some way or have completely opted out of the health insurance marketplace.

In most cases, these folks are using community health centers that provide basic care and offer services beyond those of pharmacy-run “minute clinics.” Most community health centers serve both the insured and uninsured. This setting has revealed the tremendous gap in healthcare delivery, which often requires a legal solution to fill.

Representatives from The Project, SLLS and DOC working on MLP details at a recent meeting.

Representatives from The Project, SLLS and DOC working on MLP details at a recent meeting.

It is this gap that the newly-created Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) between The Pro Bono Project (The Project), Southeast Louisiana Legal Service (SLLS) and the Daughters of Charity Health Centers (DOC) is attempting to close.

This medical-legal partnership model works by using a community health clinic setting to remove barriers to accessing civil legal aid through new and expanded pro bono services delivered by volunteer lawyers, paralegals and law students.

 

The MLP will result in:

·      increased access to care;

·      improved health and housing outcomes

·      enhanced family stability for vulnerable and underserved populations

DOC operates five community health centers and one pediatric center in New Orleans, a Metairie health center, and pediatric centers in Gretna and Kenner. They offer primary and preventive health care, as well as health care education for families, individuals, children and seniors. Its mission is to treat the whole person - body, mind and spirit - by delivering health care that works, is safe and leaves no one behind.

Opening A New Door: Bringing Legal Services to Community Healthcare

“In partnering with DOC, The Project and SLLS can bring the law to where it’s needed most – right into the neighborhoods where people live. This is an important aspect of the program, especially since so many residents with both health and civil legal issues are often restricted by their ability to get to places outside their neighborhood,” said The Project’s Chief Legal Officer Linton Carney.

Patricia Guzman-Weema came on board in December to manage this program for The Project. Pat’s background made her a natural fit: she has a passion for public service, a love for the law and an interest in healthcare, which comes from her father who served as an ambulatory care site administrator for several non-profits in north Texas.

Patricia Guzman-Weema The Pro Bono Project Staff Attorney

Patricia Guzman-Weema
The Pro Bono Project Staff Attorney

Pat was raised in Texas, then graduated from Notre Dame and came to Tulane Law School after completing a two-year post-graduate volunteer program through the Puerto Rico Center for Social Concerns. It was there that she became interested in pursuing a legal career dedicated to public service. As a law student, she interned at many area non-profits including the Orleans Public Defenders, Catholic Charities’ Project Save, the Entertainment Law Legal Assistance Project and Tulane’s Juvenile Litigation Clinic.

Before coming to The Project, Pat was working as a career counselor at Tulane Law School, counseling law students with an interest in the public service sector. Prior to that, she worked at SLLS as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow in the Housing Law Unit.

“A strong sense of service to the community was instilled in me at a young age, and I’ve always known I wanted to use my gifts, skills, and talents to serve those in need. Watching and listening to my father, Pablo Guzman talk about the struggles the patients at his clinics faced piqued my interest in healthcare law,” explained Pat.

As a native Spanish speaker, Pat was looking especially for a position where she could be of service to fellow Latinos who often struggle to navigate the legal systems due to language barriers. This position offered her the opportunity to directly represent patients, and to coordinate pro bono services by recruiting volunteers to provide patient legal representation, educational events, and assistance in staffing outreach clinics.

“It has been particularly rewarding talking to Spanish-speaking patients through the outreach clinic. The patients are happy to have someone who speaks their native language and cares about their legal issues,” said Pat. (See story: When Age and Illness ...)

Closing The Gap ... Opening The Door

SLLS’ Executive Director, Laura Tuggle was instrumental in finding a portion of the MLP funding though a Legal Services Corporation (LSC) grant program. She makes a strong case for the need to close the gap that exists for many locals who desperately need access to health care but are blocked by a civil legal issue.

Laura Tuggle SLLS Executive Director

Laura Tuggle
SLLS Executive Director

“Civil legal assistance is an often overlooked, yet essential part of the solution to improve the health of vulnerable people and strengthen underserved communities. Where you live, your opportunity to access care, to afford medications, high stress levels, and so many other social determinants of health often have a legal remedy outside medicine's scope of influence. Adding lawyers to the healthcare team fills a critical gap,” said Laura.

It was a no-brainer that if people couldn’t afford health care, they likely couldn’t afford the civil legal services needed to unlock the door to health care. The Pro Bono Project was a natural fit since they already serve many of the same vulnerable populations with the metro area.

“We believe low-income people in the greater New Orleans area deserve the best legal team to help resolve health-harming legal problems. Having partnered many times with The Project to expand civil legal aid through the power of pro bono, SLLS knew we wanted them on our team. The Project's cadre of dedicated and experienced volunteers lays the foundation for long-term sustainability for our Medical-Legal Partnership,” explained Laura.

The MLP grant kicked in on January 15, 2016, and Pat has been staffing a weekly clinic at the Metairie DOC, where she has already opened 13 cases and placed one with a volunteer attorney. (See story: When Age and Illness ...)

“We are providing a valuable service and addressing a clear need in the community. Many times people are so distracted by their legal issues that they fail to properly take care of their health, which in turn leads to more issues, both health and legal, creating a snow ball effect. By trying to address the health-harming determinants from a legal standpoint we are tangentially assisting the patients in improving their overall health,” said Pat.

Coming Up ...

Pat and Linton recently made a presentation at the New Orleans Paralegal Association’s monthly “Lunch and Learn” to provide an overview of the new MLP and how paralegals fit into the program. Several in attendance signed up for the “ABCs of Disability Applications” CLE scheduled for Tuesday, March 22 from 2-4 pm at the S. Carrollton Avenue DOC. For more information and to register: ABCs

Additional CLEs will be scheduled in the coming weeks and there will be an on-going need for volunteer attorneys to accept cases and staff outreach clinics. In April, The Project hopes to have “Know Your Rights” presentations for clinic patients. The law firm of Curry and Friend will provide a presentation on “Health and Estate Planning” in early April. Pat will also be delivering a “Housing Rights” presentation (in Spanish) at the two of the DOC clinics.  Please check The Project’s webpage on Upcoming Events often for more information on these programs, other MLP CLEs, educational and volunteer opportunities.

For more information on the MLP, please contact Patricia Guzman-Weema.