The Doctor (and Lawyer) Are In

By Jennifer L. Colagiovanni posted 07-06-2020 11:55


Medical-legal partnerships (MLPs) are making an impact in Michigan, offering support to low-income residents by integrating free, professional legal services directly into the health care setting. A recent Second Wave Michigan article noted that 86 percent of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal assistance, and of these, 41 percent are directly related to health care. MLPs can increase access to legal services and help enforce existing laws to protect vulnerable people and make a meaningful impact on the social and environmental factors that contribute to health.

MLPs can take on different forms—from law school clinics like the University of Michigan’s Law School’s Pediatric Advocacy Clinic, or Wayne Law’s Legal Advocacy for People with Cancer Clinic, to direct partnerships between legal aid organizations and health systems like the MLP formed between Legal Aid of West Michigan and Cherry Health. The National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership currently lists 11 MLPs in Michigan. These partnerships bring lawyers into the health care team, where they can positively impact the ability to address social determinants of health—social factors such as income, health insurance, housing, education, and employment. So how does it work? Physicians, nurses, and social workers are trained to flag such issues as evictions, insurance disputes, or special education needs and make referrals for help with these issues. Receiving legal assistance with these concerns, often earlier than would otherwise be the case, can alleviate the legal problem, reduce stress, and positively impact the health of the individual and their family.

Debra Chopp, associate dean for experiential education and clinical professor at U-M Law School, points out that many people who have a legal or social issue may not realize that there’s a legal solution to it. An MLP gives people an access point to legal services to assist in figuring it out, and incorporating legal assistance with the health care team aligns with the idea of an integrated health care model.