“Doctors can provide the best medical care, but kids won’t get better if there are issues at home,” said Allison Held, associate general counsel for Medical-Legal Partnership Richmond (MLP-Richmond). “A clinical care team can’t do much about a landlord’s refusal to abate the asthma-inducing mold in a patient’s apartment, but a lawyer can. Similarly, a lawyer might be able to intervene when a patient is wrongfully denied nutritional support or health insurance coverage.”
Research shows that 60% of an individual’s health is determined by social factors such as income and health insurance, housing and utilities, education and employment, legal status, and personal and family stability. Through partnerships with lawyers and health care teams, MLP-Richmond offers free legal advice and representation for eligible patients and families to address the social causes of poor health that are often compounded by legal issues.
After co-founding Massey Cancer Center’s Medical-Legal Partnership as a volunteer in 2011, Allison began developing relationships throughout VCU Health and launched a pilot program with the UCAN Community Asthma Program at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU in 2014. Knowing that poor housing conditions play a major role in asthma recurrences, MLP-Richmond focused on working with landlords to improve living conditions for patients and families. In 2018, MLP-Richmond launched onsite legal services at CHoR with funding from the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, making it the only children’s hospital with an MLP in Virginia. This year, MLP-Richmond received a grant from the Virginia Law Foundation to provide continued financial support.
While housing issues remain the most common challenge for CHoR patients, MLP-Richmond also assists families with matters related to health and public benefits, employment law, family law and consumer law. Referrals come from physicians, social workers and families, and cases are handled by Sara Blose, a senior attorney from the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
During the last fiscal year, MLP-Richmond received 85 referrals for patients served primarily at the Children’s Pavilion. While not all of those referrals led to full cases, Allison expects this number to increase with the addition of special education and immigration assistance offered through a new pro bono partnership with Dominion and McGuireWoods. The partnership also will allow MLP-Richmond to take cases from families who don’t meet current qualifications for legal aid and families served at other CHoR locations, including the Virginia Treatment Center for Children.
“Families and patients have all sorts of unmet needs,” said Dr. Sean McKenna, CHoR’s MLP-Richmond medical champion. “If we ask the right questions, we can get the right help for social issues. Reaching out to the legal team opens a new avenue of care for our patients.”
Making a difference
MLP-Richmond supports patients and families when social issues impact a patient’s health. Some examples of the team’s work include:
A 7-year-old child witnessed the violent murder of a close family friend while she was inside her home in a conventional public housing property. The child suffered from severe anxiety as a result and was traumatized by continuing to live at that location, but the family could not afford to move. An MLP attorney partnered with two CHoR physicians to request a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act to allow the family to be transferred to another public housing property.
An 8-year-old boy was experiencing increasingly severe asthma attacks as a result of a neighbor’s marijuana smoke traveling through the vents into his family’s apartment. His mother’s complaints to the landlord were ignored. An MLP attorney, using a letter from a CHoR physician as support, contacted the landlord and successfully requested relocation to a non-smoking building due to the child’s medical condition.
A mother had her wages garnished because she fell behind on car payments while she was missing time at work in order to care for her son who had been diagnosed with lymphoma. An MLP attorney was able to recover a significant portion of the garnished wages that the family could then use to pay for basic necessities such as housing, food, medication and transportation.
For more information or to access MLP-Richmond’s services, call (804) 517-9110 or email MLP@vcuhealth.org.