20 Jun 2017

Care and Legal Help for Patients in Need

Care and Legal Help for Patients in Need

Medical-legal partnerships are bringing lawyers and paralegals to health-care teams to improve the health and well-being of underserved populations

When Jack Tsai, PhD, treats veterans at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, they often have problems that go beyond the scope of his work as a psychologist. Many have post-traumatic stress disorder or cognitive disabilities and are fighting for disability benefits. Others are embroiled in housing disputes, are facing eviction or have already become homeless.

While psychologists can treat their mental health concerns, these veterans need legal help, too. "A lot of these patients have never had anyone advocate for them in court," says Tsai, who has dual appointments at the VA and the Yale School of Medicine.

Enter the medical-legal partnership, or MLP, a model that embeds lawyers and paralegals into health-care teams to detect, address and prevent social conditions that harm health. Those legal experts typically work on-site in health-care settings, either part time or full time, where they can access patients' medical records and even sit in on clinical meetings. The legal services are offered at no charge to the patient. Programs are typically funded through a combination of philanthropy, law schools and civil legal aid agencies, with a handful of contributions from health-care partners.

Psychologists are obvious candidates for getting involved in MLPs, Tsai says. They already have long-term relationships with their clients and understand how their legal problems might be interfering with their mental health and well-being. Plus, psychologists are often accustomed to working on interdisciplinary teams.

Unlike sending patients to a legal aid clinic, Tsai adds, the process is streamlined when the legal team is located inside the hospital. "We can walk patients down the hall and do a warm handoff," he says.

Helping underserved populations

The current MLP model was developed at the Boston Medical Center in 1993 but didn't begin to catch on until the late 2000s when it was embraced by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. To date, nearly 300 hospitals and health centers nationwide have developed MLPs, according to the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

Adding a legal expert to the team helps underserved populations in a variety of ways: They can help patients apply for food stamps and disability benefits; press landlords to improve substandard housing; help tenants avoid eviction; advocate for special education services; fight employment discrimination; and assist with issues related to immigration, child custody and domestic violence—just some of the many factors that can undermine a patient's health.

"I can't imagine what things would be like without having the MLP, because they do so much," says Britt Nielsen, PsyD, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University and clinical psychologist at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. In 2015, the MetroHealth MLP provided assistance to 839 people. Of those, 43 percent had mental health disorders.

MetroHealth began its MLP program 14 years ago in the pediatrics department, Nielsen says. Though it has since expanded to assist adult patients as well, advocating for kids is still a focus. "We do a lot of advocacy as psychologists, talking to teachers or writing letters to a patient's school," Nielsen says. "But MLPs have a great working knowledge of the law, and the things they're able to do go beyond what I can do in a phone call or a letter."

Often, families in underserved populations don't understand what rights they have when it comes to education, living arrangements or Supplemental Security Income, she adds. In addition to helping families directly with legal issues, she says, the MLP has also made physicians more aware of patients' rights, helping to ensure more patients get the services and support they need.

In some cases, MLPs highlight a bigger need that goes beyond a single patient. Nielsen points to a case where a local school district wasn't providing students with the special education services required by law. "The MLP was able to take the district to court and get restitution for those families," she says.

Need for data

While anecdotal evidence suggests MLPs are valuable, few studies have assessed their effectiveness. The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership is developing metrics to systematically measure the effects of MLPs on patient well-being and health-care costs. Meanwhile, some smaller studies have found the partnerships provide benefits.

A study by Mary M. O'Sullivan, MD, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, and colleagues found asthma patients had reductions in asthma medications and their hospital admissions and emergency room visits declined after an MLP was put into place (Journal of Asthma, 2012). And a pilot study of a Tucson-based MLP by Anne M. Ryan, JD, and colleagues at the University of Arizona found patients' perceived stress levels decreased and overall well-being increased after receiving help from an MLP (Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2012).

Evidence also suggests that MLPs make economic sense. In one example, Kerry J. Rodabaugh, MD, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and colleagues studied the benefits of an MLP for cancer patients and their health-care institution. Between April 2004 and December 2007, the program assisted terminal patients with legal issues such as guardianship, estate planning and benefits advocacy. During that period, the MLP helped overturn denials of insurance benefits for 17 patients, preventing economic hardship for patients while recovering $923,188 in reimbursements to the hospital (Journal of Palliative Medicine, 2010).

Tsai and his colleagues recently received a grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to evaluate whether the MLP model improves mental health and quality of life for patients at four VA sites in Connecticut and New York over the next two years. Aside from his study, however, little research has been done focusing on the mental health benefits of such programs, he says.

Those data are sorely needed, says Tsai, especially as many MLPs are struggling to find funding through grants and donations. "There's huge potential for mental health researchers to help these legal clinics collect data and evaluate outcomes," he says. "It's an area ripe for psychologists."

For more information on medical-legal partnerships, visit the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership http://medical-legalpartnership.org.

To watch a video on how medical-legal partnerships work, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdvE5wbumYw.

When Jack Tsai, PhD, treats veterans at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, they often have problems that go beyond the scope of his work as a psychologist. Many have post-traumatic stress disorder or cognitive disabilities and are fighting for disability benefits. Others are embroiled in housing disputes, are facing eviction or have already become homeless.

While psychologists can treat their mental health concerns, these veterans need legal help, too. "A lot of these patients have never had anyone advocate for them in court," says Tsai, who has dual appointments at the VA and the Yale School of Medicine.

Enter the medical-legal partnership, or MLP, a model that embeds lawyers and paralegals into health-care teams to detect, address and prevent social conditions that harm health. Those legal experts typically work on-site in health-care settings, either part time or full time, where they can access patients' medical records and even sit in on clinical meetings. The legal services are offered at no charge to the patient. Programs are typically funded through a combination of philanthropy, law schools and civil legal aid agencies, with a handful of contributions from health-care partners.

Psychologists are obvious candidates for getting involved in MLPs, Tsai says. They already have long-term relationships with their clients and understand how their legal problems might be interfering with their mental health and well-being. Plus, psychologists are often accustomed to working on interdisciplinary teams.

Unlike sending patients to a legal aid clinic, Tsai adds, the process is streamlined when the legal team is located inside the hospital. "We can walk patients down the hall and do a warm handoff," he says.

Helping underserved populations

The current MLP model was developed at the Boston Medical Center in 1993 but didn't begin to catch on until the late 2000s when it was embraced by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. To date, nearly 300 hospitals and health centers nationwide have developed MLPs, according to the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.

Adding a legal expert to the team helps underserved populations in a variety of ways: They can help patients apply for food stamps and disability benefits; press landlords to improve substandard housing; help tenants avoid eviction; advocate for special education services; fight employment discrimination; and assist with issues related to immigration, child custody and domestic violence—just some of the many factors that can undermine a patient's health.

"I can't imagine what things would be like without having the MLP, because they do so much," says Britt Nielsen, PsyD, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University and clinical psychologist at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. In 2015, the MetroHealth MLP provided assistance to 839 people. Of those, 43 percent had mental health disorders.

MetroHealth began its MLP program 14 years ago in the pediatrics department, Nielsen says. Though it has since expanded to assist adult patients as well, advocating for kids is still a focus. "We do a lot of advocacy as psychologists, talking to teachers or writing letters to a patient's school," Nielsen says. "But MLPs have a great working knowledge of the law, and the things they're able to do go beyond what I can do in a phone call or a letter."

Often, families in underserved populations don't understand what rights they have when it comes to education, living arrangements or Supplemental Security Income, she adds. In addition to helping families directly with legal issues, she says, the MLP has also made physicians more aware of patients' rights, helping to ensure more patients get the services and support they need.

In some cases, MLPs highlight a bigger need that goes beyond a single patient. Nielsen points to a case where a local school district wasn't providing students with the special education services required by law. "The MLP was able to take the district to court and get restitution for those families," she says.

Need for data

While anecdotal evidence suggests MLPs are valuable, few studies have assessed their effectiveness. The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership is developing metrics to systematically measure the effects of MLPs on patient well-being and health-care costs. Meanwhile, some smaller studies have found the partnerships provide benefits.

A study by Mary M. O'Sullivan, MD, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, and colleagues found asthma patients had reductions in asthma medications and their hospital admissions and emergency room visits declined after an MLP was put into place (Journal of Asthma, 2012). And a pilot study of a Tucson-based MLP by Anne M. Ryan, JD, and colleagues at the University of Arizona found patients' perceived stress levels decreased and overall well-being increased after receiving help from an MLP (Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2012).

Evidence also suggests that MLPs make economic sense. In one example, Kerry J. Rodabaugh, MD, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and colleagues studied the benefits of an MLP for cancer patients and their health-care institution. Between April 2004 and December 2007, the program assisted terminal patients with legal issues such as guardianship, estate planning and benefits advocacy. During that period, the MLP helped overturn denials of insurance benefits for 17 patients, preventing economic hardship for patients while recovering $923,188 in reimbursements to the hospital (Journal of Palliative Medicine, 2010).

Tsai and his colleagues recently received a grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to evaluate whether the MLP model improves mental health and quality of life for patients at four VA sites in Connecticut and New York over the next two years. Aside from his study, however, little research has been done focusing on the mental health benefits of such programs, he says.

Those data are sorely needed, says Tsai, especially as many MLPs are struggling to find funding through grants and donations. "There's huge potential for mental health researchers to help these legal clinics collect data and evaluate outcomes," he says. "It's an area ripe for psychologists."

For more information on medical-legal partnerships, visit the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership http://medical-legalpartnership.org.

To watch a video on how medical-legal partnerships work, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdvE5wbumYw.

Additional reading

  • Medical-Legal Partnerships: Transforming Primary Care by Addressing the Legal Needs of Vulnerable Populations, Sandel, M., Hansen, M., Kahn, R., Lawton, E., Paul, E., Parker, V., Morton, S., and Zuckerman, B. Health Affairs, 2010
  • The State of the Medical-Legal Partnership Field: Findings from the 2015 National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership Surveys, Regenstein, M., Sharac, J., and Trott, J.

By Kirsten Weir 


This article was originally published in the November 2016 Monitor on Psychology

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