For the Health of It—Legal Services Lead to Better Health!

Rachel Lessem

We know an annual check-up or physical with a doctor helps people stay healthy, but a check up with a lawyer can be good for your health, too. Most people with legal issues don’t even know that they have them. And many of these unrecognized legal issues can be bad for one’s health. To provide the most comprehensive care, medical providers, and lawyers have teamed up through a model called a Medical Legal Partnership (MLP) to address both the medical and legal needs a person may have.

Guest Contributor: Rachel Lessem, PhD, JD

MLPs were first started by pediatrician Barry Zuckerman in 1993 at the Boston Medical Center. He was troubled by young patients who had chronic asthma problems. Despite medical care, these children continued to suffer. Dr. Zuckerman realized these children’s homes often had issues with mold or rats that landlords had refused to address. Some homes had their utilities turned off, and the resulting cold caused the children’s asthma to flare up. As a doctor, he alone could not fix these housing and landlord problems.

He added lawyers to the medical team. Lawyers forced landlords to clean up apartments and worked with families to appeal these denials of benefits and turn utilities back on. When lawyers joined the medical team, patients’ health improved. Now, there are over 450 MLPs nationwide resolving legal issues impacting health for nearly 75,000 people. Research shows that receiving services through an MLP reduces stress and anxiety, improves quality of life, and results in fewer hospital admissions. In fact, one study found that just talking to an attorney, before the legal issue was even resolved, resulted in better mental health. Studies have shown that clients of MLPs had more stable housing and increased their income after receiving legal services. A nationwide study of MLPs demonstrated that MLP clients were better able to follow their doctor’s orders, adhere to medication regimes, and had better and more regular access to healthy food.

One of the benefits to MLPs is that they fully address social determinants of health or the places in which people live, learn, work, play, and age. Nearly 60% of our health is determined by these social factors. There is a clear need for legal services addressed. Research from the Legal Services Corporation finds that 56% of low-income older adults have at least one legal need, 10% have six or more legal needs each year, and sadly, 87% of these legal needs go unmet. Importantly, 33% of these legal needs are health-related, showing how critical legal help is to maintaining good health.

People do not have their legal needs met for many reasons. Some people don’t know where to go for help. Some people can’t afford help; they make too much for legal services but too little to afford a private attorney. Some people don’t even know they have a legal issue. The ever-widening chasm between legal needs and legal services to meet those needs is often referred to as the “the justice gap.” This gap emphasizes the inequalities present in our society.

The acronym I-HELP is used to screen for legal issues, with the letters representing Income—Housing—Employment/Education—Legal Status—Personal/Family Stability. Income: Denial of benefits is an example of an issue that affects income. Lack of food stamps, disability, or veterans’ benefits can cause people to make trade-offs between affording food and health care, including medications. With legal help to secure those benefits, fewer of these trade-offs are required, which can lead to better health outcomes. Also with legal help, a person can secure housing subsidies, improve substandard housing, and prevent evictions. Personal/Family Stability: A stable, decent, and affordable home helps people follow their medical treatment plans and avoid costly emergency room visits. Advance care planning provides personal and family stability for the future in the form of Powers of Attorney, as well as wills and other legal documents.

There is a movement to support more MLPs to do this important work. You may contact your US Representative and ask them to support HR 5241—The Linking Seniors to Needed Legal Services Act—which will provide money to states to fund MLPs. Let us all be reminded of the obligation to pursue justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof—Justice you shall pursue.

The CJE Legal Help Desk is available to provide you with a legal check-up. Contact us at 773.508.1086 or LegalHelpDesk@cje.net.