The opinions expressed in entries in the LC Blog are those of the author, not of Lawyers Club of San Diego.

Lawyers Club Blog

Posted by: Shelly Skinner on Oct 12, 2020
In the midst of a global health pandemic, lawyers can play a critical role in improving people’s health. Specifically, by getting involved with a medical-legal partnership, lawyers can become part of a patient’s health care team and assist with resolving legal matters that directly impact the patient’s well-being. That work is particularly important now, as vulnerable populations grapple with seemingly insurmountable hardships.
For example, according to a federal census survey, around 11.8 million children live in households that missed or sought a deferment for a housing payment, while roughly 3.9 million children have experienced food shortages caused by COVID-19. Indeed, millions of American families have experienced a decline in the conditions in which they live, work, learn, and play, and research shows that 60% of an individual’s health is determined by these social determinants of health. One effective mechanism for improving a household’s social determinants of health is a medical-legal partnership (MLP).



As stated above, an MLP integrates lawyers into a patient’s health care team. MLP lawyers are generally situated in a health care center, where they meet with patients who have been referred by medical staff, including social workers. Some health organizations directly employ MLP lawyers, but the majority partner with legal services agencies or law school clinics. Thus, one way for attorneys to get involved is to perform pro bono work through an organization that is partnered with an MLP.



Lawyers who are employed by MLPs train health care providers to spot issues that could benefit from legal assistance, such as housing insecurity; wrongful denial of government income supports, health insurance, or food assistance; and family violence. The MLP lawyer then helps resolve those matters or refers the patient to a pro bono attorney. Addressing the underlying legal issue can directly improve a patient’s health outcomes. For example, a patient suffering from asthma, who was doing everything recommended by their doctor but experiencing no improvement in their health, may finally find their breathing difficulties alleviated once a lawyer has taken legal measures to have the patient’s landlord fix mold issues. In addition, due to the economic toll of the pandemic, MLP lawyers will likely play a key role in helping households that are impacted by the eviction crisis
Beyond providing families with direct legal services, many MLP lawyers consult with medical staff about systemic barriers to care and use their expertise to advance policies that lead to safer and healthier environments. Thus, the benefits of MLPs can extend far beyond individual patients and can improve the social determinants of health for entire populations. Improving or eliminating the conditions that lead to poor health outcomes can prevent healthy individuals from becoming patients. 
Clinicians have reported better patient health outcomes and greater compliance with medical treatment due to MLP services. Over the last decade, the American Medical Association Board of Trustees, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Bar Association have issued reports or resolutions encouraging participation in medical-legal partnership activities. As their positive impact on both patients and health care workers is increasingly acknowledged, MLPs have taken root at health care facilities across the country. In fact, the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership counts over 400 MLPs that are currently operating in the U.S
With more than 5.13 million United States households currently at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, Legal Services Corporation president Ronald S. Flagg stated that the health and economic crises have expanded the justice gap into a “justice canyon.” MLPs can help increase households’ access to justice while improving their well-being. As the world contends with a deadly pandemic, now is the time to bolster health care teams through MLPs. Lawyers are of critical import.

Shelly Skinner was as a federal attorney for 12 years, working on traditional labor law cases and ethics issues; now, she is focused on increasing access to justice and establishing a medical-legal partnership in San Diego.