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ABA Health eSource
November 2009 Volume 6 Number 3

Chair's Column

By David W. Hilgers, Brown McCarroll, L.L.P., Austin, TX

David Hilgers

Most of the members of the Health Law Section are aware of the education and publication services that we provide our members. However, the Section also carries out its responsibility to establish and nurture legal programs that benefit the general public. I first became personally acquainted with one of the programs that we sponsor – Medical-Legal Partnerships (MLP) – when Texas RioGrande Legal Aid established such a partnership with the Medical School at the University of Texas San Antonio. However, Charity Scott, our Council member who is also a professor at Georgia State University Law School, has long been involved with the MLP programs and is an important element in the development of these partnerships between medical schools and law schools. The story of MLP’s development is a tribute to the commitment of many people to improving the general health of the public. In 1993 Dr. Barry Zuckerman, a physician at Boston Medical Center, recognized that although physicians could often treat the symptoms of the children being seen, there were also very complex environmental problems that could undo any medical treatment. He also understood that many of these environmental issues could be handled by bringing poverty law lawyers into the medical clinics to help these families and children. Pushing this idea into a reality, Dr. Zuckerman prevailed upon the Medical Center to form a partnership with poverty law lawyers in the area that would collaborate to resolve the health problems of the patients through the application of both medical and legal methods.

A common example of how this collaboration can help is childhood asthma. The doctor sees the patient on an emergency basis, and solves the immediate asthma problem through the application of medicine. The doctor can also prescribe a drug regimen to curtail acute attacks. However, the patient returns several weeks later with the same symptoms. It doesn’t take long to determine that the underlying problem is in the child’s environment. He lives in marginal housing and is exposed to mold in a sub-par apartment that the landlord refuses to remedy. Previously, there was no solution to that problem but to continue to treat the patient on an emergency basis. However, with the law clinic in the office of the pediatrician, the doctor immediately refers the patient to the lawyer, and the lawyer can institute legal action or maybe just make a phone call that solves the mold problem. The genius in the program is the bringing together of the lawyer into the medical clinic where these problems surface, which enables the doctor to include the legal remedy as part of the medical treatment. No longer is the doctor limited by the scope of his practice, and the lawyer is introduced to the problem in its most apparent manifestation. This is just one example of the kinds of problems that can be dealt with more efficiently with these medical-legal partnerships.

Boston Medical Center was not content with merely initiating this program in Boston. Instead, its success soon spread throughout the medical and poverty law community. The program so clearly worked for the benefit of the patients that many hospitals and medical schools began developing their own medical-legal partnerships. Presently, there are over 180 hospitals and health centers nationwide utilizing this model to help not only children, but the elderly, cancer patients, pregnant women, and other vulnerable populations.

Lawyers who provide support to these partnerships come primarily from law schools and poverty law organizations such as Legal Aid clinics. Our own Charity Scott heads the Georgia State Law School component of this successful partnership. She is also spearheading an effort to develop other partnerships with law school components. On September 24 and 25, a very successful national conference on “Interdisciplinary Collaborative Education: Partnerships between Law Schools and the Health Professions,” was held. We are lucky to have Charity in the forefront of such a great program. The Health Law Section has been able to secure a grant for the ABA enterprise fund and participates in the group that advises the MLP organization.

I can personally attest to the important benefits that these partnerships bring to people without legal and medical resources. I watched one develop in San Antonio from a fledgling operation to one that is serving the entire community in a new and practical way. What I love about this program is that it takes real people with real problems and provides tangible help, both legal and medical.

These organizations need help, both financial and legal. The ABA Health Law Section is proud to be able to assist in a small way in the nurturing and development of these programs and urge you to do the same by supporting those in your local area.

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