NYLAG's Randye Retkin (far right) presents at the Congressional briefing.

NYLAG’s Randye Retkin (far right) presents at the October 1 Congressional briefing.

Medical-legal partnerships are receiving increasing attention for their ability to transform the health care system’s response to the social determinants of health, such as income, access to food and housing, and employment status. Across the country, attorneys are being integrated into patients’ health care teams to address legal problems that impede treatment or recovery. Health care providers are being trained to identify the health-harming legal needs of patients, and work with attorneys to address them.

At a Congressional Briefing hosted by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation on October 1, Randye Retkin, Director of NYLAG’s LegalHealth division, made the case for medical-legal partnerships as an especially invaluable tool to improve the health and wellbeing of veterans and their families.

LegalHealth is the country’s largest medical-legal partnership, with clinics in 25 hospitals in New York City and Long Island, including all eleven of the City’s public hospitals. In 2012, thanks to a generous grant from the Robin Hood Foundation, LegalHealth brought its model to two New York City VA hospitals to address the pressing legal needs of veterans, including the threat of eviction, denial of public benefits, and debt collection.

“When people are homeless, live in substandard housing, or are not receiving the public benefits they deserve, their mental and physical health suffers,” said Retkin. “This is especially true for veterans who often have post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious mental health problems. Legal expertise is critical for them.”

Earlier this year, Bristol-Myers Squibb awarded funding to NYLAG and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) to study the impact of medical-legal partnerships on veterans. The study is part of an effort to find community-based programs that can help returning veterans, and other military service members integrate into civilian life. The results will serve as the basis for developing best practices to replicate medical-legal partnerships in communities throughout the US.

An annual survey conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs consistently shows that legal needs are among the top unmet needs for homeless and low-income veterans. When legal issues are addressed through medical-legal partnerships, the results are impressive. Preliminary data collected by CVLC show that for every $100 spent providing legal help, veterans received over $200 in increased income and decreased debt. Sixty-five percent of veterans in landlord-tenant disputes improved their housing stability, and sixty percent of those with child support issues improved their financial stability.

“To adequately address the intertwined health and legal needs of veterans and to improve their overall quality of life, we ask Congress to authorize and appropriate the VA to fund legal services provided through the medical-legal partnership model,” said Retkin. “This simple action can make a major difference in the lives of veterans by keeping them healthy, living in their own homes, and supported in their recovery.”