The following article is from Arkansas Hospitals magazine, a custom publication of Vowell, Inc., which also produces Arkansas Money & Politics.
By Kesia Morrison, Legal Aid of Arkansas
According to the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, only 20% of an individual’s health is determined by genetics, medical care and personal choices. The remaining 80% is determined by where an individual lives, works, learns and plays. Factors include income, access to care, education, housing, access to healthy food, stable employment and personal safety. Individuals living in poverty face many barriers to good health outcomes that cannot be treated in an exam room. How can healthcare professionals ensure good health outcomes for their patients when so much is beyond reach?
A medical-legal partnership (MLP) embeds attorneys in the healthcare team to “treat” legal problems that are affecting health. It helps to think of the attorney like another specialist. When the medical partner knows it is a medical issue, she refers to the appropriate medical specialist. If the patient has a shattered bone, he is referred to an orthopedic surgeon. If the patient has grand mal seizures, she is referred to a neurologist. If it’s a mystery rash, refer the patient to a dermatologist. When the medical partner identifies or suspects a health-harming legal need, the patient is referred to the legal partner.
For example, if the patient cannot get well because of the conditions in her apartment, that problem could have a legal solution. A patient who cannot get a medical device because Medicaid will not cover the cost can be referred to MLP for help getting Medicaid to pay for the device. A victim of domestic violence can be referred to MLP for help securing an order of protection and a divorce so that she can live in a safe and healthy environment. A student can get help asking her school for educational services that meet her individual needs.
Legal Aid of Arkansas is a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income Arkansans. Legal Aid operates six medical-legal partnerships in Arkansas: Mid-Delta Health Systems, with Friday, Eldridge & Clark; Arkansas Children’s Hospital, with Walmart Legal; Mid-South Health Systems; Veterans Healthcare Systems of the Ozarks; Lee County Cooperative Clinic; and CHI St. Vincent. Additionally, our sister organization, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, partners with the Central Arkansas VA Health Care System Day Treatment Center.
MLP is an important part of Legal Aid’s service delivery model because we understand that poverty and health are connected. Poverty is the single most defining factor in a person’s life. Poverty is the best predictor of whether a person will have good health, live in a safe environment, get a good education and have employment opportunities. Unresolved social and economic problems can perpetuate poverty and its effects. Many of these problems have legal solutions, and addressing them with legal help can provide a path out of poverty and a path toward a healthier future.
Legal Aid hopes to create a statewide network of medical and legal partners. Such a network could bring together stakeholders to facilitate research collaboration, systemic advocacy and other opportunities. Working together, medical and legal partners can identify solutions to the most pressing health-harming legal needs facing Arkansans.