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Health care and law join forces to help Boston's patients

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  October 26, 2011 02:37 PM

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By Jeffrey N. Catalano
and Samantha J. Morton

Forcing a landlord to make needed repairs on a family’s debilitated Mattapan apartment. Getting a disabled child access to appropriate special education services. Helping a young homeless mother – a survivor of domestic violence – and her young children find refuge in a Boston family shelter.

These real-life examples illustrate how the worlds of health care and law collide to influence the lives of Greater Boston’s most vulnerable patients. To address these intertwined health problems and legal needs, the Massachusetts Bar Association and Massachusetts Medical-Legal Partnership network have joined forces to launch the MBA Pro Bono Prescription.

This pioneering effort unites health-care teams and lawyers toward a shared goal of strengthening struggling communities. The MBA Pro Bono Prescription aims to increase the supply of lawyers who can prescribe legal remedies to help avert both legal crises and health emergencies.

The MBA sees this initiative as another opportunity to fulfill its mission to serve the public by promoting justice. It also provides an opportunity for MBA members to contribute to society and use their legal expertise at a time when there is a growing need for pro bono, or free, legal services. The program further nurtures the valued relationship that the MBA already enjoys with the medical profession.

Physicians, nurses, social workers and other members of the healthcare team often treat patients with health-impacting problems that cannot be remedied by medicine alone. A doctor in the emergency room can treat a child’s respiratory troubles, but a lawyer is instrumental to ensure that the landlord removes the mold that triggered the illness. Medical-legal partnership programs, especially those bolstered by attorney and paralegal volunteers, can support patients in securing the concrete benefits and resources they need.

This statewide initiative will support vulnerable patients by offering free legal services through collaborations with medical-legal partnership programs across the Medical-Legal Partnership/Boston, a program of Boston Medical Center. MLP/Boston serves low-income patients treated at BMC, Children’s Hospital Boston, and six BMC-affiliated health centers.

When unmet legal needs are identified among patients, concerned health-care providers can contact MLP/Boston in real time to get a legal assessment. Many patients then are connected to pro bono volunteers for assistance.

The story of a family treated at a Boston-area health center is a compelling example of the power of MLP. Louise is the only caregiver to her four grandchildren, each of whom has asthma. Louise reported to her health center provider that their subsidized apartment had deplorable conditions, including mice, mold, leaks, cabinets falling off the wall, broken light fixtures and a broken heating system. The health-care provider, having been trained by MLP/Boston in the connections between law and health, paged MLP/Boston to seek assistance for the family. During the coldest winter months, MLP/Boston staff worked intensively with the city’s Inspectional Services Department and the Boston Housing Authority to resolve the most serious of the landlord’s health code violations, including a heating system that frequently malfunctioned and left the family without heat. This success had a tangible, positive impact on the health of these asthmatic children and the well-being of their grandmother.

The MBA Pro Bono Prescription strives to strengthen the work of MLP/Boston by providing an influx of volunteer MBA attorneys who can help reach a larger number of vulnerable patients throughout Greater Boston.

We urge lawyers throughout Greater Boston to join this important effort and donate both their expertise and energy to residents facing legal challenges that affect their ability to remain healthy. Programs such as these are critical during these difficult economic times, when the number of struggling residents is growing in every community across the state.

Jeffrey N. Catalano is vice president of Massachusetts Bar Association and a partner at Todd & Weld LLP, Boston. Samantha J. Morton is executive director of Medical-Legal Partnership/Boston.

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