SPOKANE, Washington – Unmet legal problems adversely impact the health of approximately 1 in 6 Americans, most especially the poor, according to National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership. A 2012 Spokane Regional Health District study demonstrated how Spokane’s poor have significantly reduced life expectancy. On Jan. 12, a new six-member community collaborative began providing free in-clinic legal services to address the legal needs compromising the health of low-income individuals in our community.
The partners include the Gonzaga University School of Law’s Center for Law and Justice, Providence Health Care, Empire Health Foundation, Washington State University Spokane, the Center for Justice, and faculty and residents at the Providence Residency Clinics. This one-year pilot program – funded by Providence Health Care, Empire Health Foundation, and WSU Spokane – will involve law students and medical residents working together to identify clients with health-compromising legal needs and use a team approach to address them. Faculty from GU Law and Providence Residency Clinics will supervise the students. The plan calls for 12 GU law students to work with 51 medical residents.
The students will work together to address issues such as safe housing – including unlawful evictions and landlord-tenant issues – and income maintenance concerns, such as obtaining and maintaining disability benefits. The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership identified these concerns as among the most frequent challenges not being addressed. The partners’ first-year goal is to provide assistance to at least 100 clients with medical-legal concerns.
“If a child is getting sick because he lives in substandard housing, you could give him an inhaler to treat the asthma or you could help move him to a safe house where he isn’t being exposed to mold or other hazards,” explained Center for Justice Attorney Barry Pfundt, who will be supervising the new legal clinic. “We are not just treating symptoms, we are eliminating the root cause of the illness. And that’s something a doctor can’t always do by herself.”
In 2013, Pfundt helped launch the Center for Justice’s Health & Justice Initiative to increase collaboration between health care and legal service providers for the benefit of the community.
While serving patients is the core purpose of the new Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) Clinic, it will also provide unique opportunities for medical residents and law students. For law students, clinical programs provide an opportunity to work directly with clients, manage caseloads, and hone skills necessary as they begin a professional career. For medical residents, the program creates an opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary care setting that prepares them for the future. Studies have shown that the MLP model can improve health care job satisfaction by enabling health care providers to be more involved in discovering and addressing the root causes of poor health.
“The Medical-Legal Partnership gives WSU Spokane’s health sciences campus additional opportunities to invest in this community and to work, in a unique way, to improve health care in our city,” said Lisa Brown, chancellor of WSU Spokane.
“Spokane is a regional center for health services, and we also have some of our state’s highest rates of poverty,” said Pfundt. “The MLP addresses both of these facts – continuing our region’s leadership and innovation in health care, while addressing the health harming legal problems of those in need.”
Gonzaga University School of Law Center for Law and Justice
Established in 1974 as one of the first law school legal services clinics in the nation, the GU Law Center for Law and Justice is staffed by GU Law students and faculty that provide legal assistance to low-income, elderly, and nonprofit community members while providing law students with practical career training. On the web: www.law.gonzaga.edu.
Providence Health Care
In Eastern Washington, the Providence Health Care regional network consists of 11 health care organizations working together to provide quality health and human services for Inland Northwest residents. Providence Health Care is a part of the not-for-profit, faith based Providence Health & Services organization. On the web: www.phc.org.
Empire Health Foundation
An independent, nonprofit grant-making foundation that serves seven counties in Eastern Washington, Empire Health Foundation focuses on health access, education, research, and public policy. The Foundation is the largest private health foundation in the region. On the web: www.empirehealthfoundation.org
Washington State University, Spokane
Washington State University Spokane is WSU’s urban health sciences campus. Located in the heart of the University District near downtown Spokane, WSU Spokane prepares the state’s future generations of health professionals, and houses world-class research that leads to healthier people and communities. On the web: http://spokane.wsu.edu
Center for Justice
The Center is a legal advocacy organization that helps thousands of local people with basic needs such as getting a driver’s license back or dealing with landlord abuses. The Center’s programs work to overcome barriers to employment, assist with getting families back on their feet, and keep governments accountable to those they are meant to serve. On the web: www.cforjustice.org.