LegalHealth Celebrates 15 Years
On May 15, 2001 a headline in the New York Times — Boston Medical Center Turns to Lawyers for a Cure — caught the eyes of both Randye Retkin and Julie Brandfield. Retkin had seed money to explore how she could build on her experience as the Legal Director at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to bring free legal services to people struggling with a range of serious illnesses. Brandfield, an attorney and parent of an asthmatic two-year-old, had seen how legal intervention can be part of the cure, and decided it was time to make a career shift from private practice. With NYLAG open to entrepreneurial approaches to legal services and a hospital ready to host a medical legal partnership clinic, LegalHealth was launched in November 2001.
“The sales pitch was new at the time and not an easy one, but eventually we made the case that non-medical issues affect patient health,” said Retkin, Director of LegalHealth. “Today it is widely understood that social determinants, such as housing insecurity or a lack of insurance or public benefits, can lead to and exacerbate poor health. This is particularly true for poor and low-income people, who are among the highest users of the healthcare system, and most likely to face societal and economic barriers to effective care.”
Fifteen years ago LegalHealth was one of the first medical-legal partnerships introduced in the U.S. Since then, 294 such programs have been established at healthcare institutions in 41 states around the country. Medical-legal partnerships were created on the premise that lawyers can play a critical role in removing non-medical barriers to better health outcomes for low-income patients. Attorneys train healthcare professionals to understand the legal issues their patients face, and are onsite at healthcare facilities, integrated into patients’ health care teams to address legal problems that impede treatment or recovery.
“It doesn’t matter how much asthma medication you give a patient if he is living with mold or other agents that trigger his symptoms. It doesn’t matter that you can provide the bone-marrow transplant that can save your patient’s life if her immigration status means she has no health insurance,” said Brandfield, LegalHealth’s Associate Director. “Lawyers can solve these problems. And, if you bring them into the hospital, where patients already trust and rely on medical staff for their care, they are more likely to feel comfortable working with an attorney.”
Today, LegalHealth is the country’s largest medical-legal partnership. They work with 26 hospitals in the New York region and are considered a model for medical-legal partnerships across the country. Their attorneys assist patients on a range of issues, including healthcare coverage issues, and helping patients negotiate with insurance providers when disputes arise. They also help patients deal with the threat of eviction, other landlord tenant issues, immigration issues, advance planning, ADA and FMLA workplace issues, and secure Social Security Disability and other benefits, among other matters.
Medical-legal partnership have only become more relevant with the implementation of new models of healthcare delivery, which call for the need to address social determinants of health and to coordinate care across many disciplines, including the law. LegalHealth staff is currently participating in a New York State Medicaid reform initiative seeking to bring medical and social service organizations together to improve care and reduce costs.
One November 14, LegalHealth celebrated its 15th anniversary at a cocktail reception held at the Society of Illustrators in Manhattan. The event brought together healthcare professionals, volunteers, private funders, government officials and LegalHealth staff members – present and past – to celebrate their remarkable growth and the extraordinary impact it has had on changing the lives and improving the health of low-income patients.
“Fifteen years ago, NYLAG recognized the enormous potential that LegalHealth represented: we can effect health outcomes for vulnerable people when a lawyer is part of the care team,” said Beth Goldman, NYLAG President and Attorney-in-Charge. “On behalf of everyone at NYLAG I want to congratulate Randye and Julie, the LegalHealth team, and the extraordinary network of healthcare providers and professionals whose work is truly transforming patient care in our country.”