Washington, D.C. and New York—Each year, between 50 and 85 percent of health center patients – or between ten and seventeen million people – experience unmet legal needs, many of which negatively impact their health, according to a new study from the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. This number is likely to increase given the profound changes in eligibility, plan enrollment, provider selection, and service delivery embodied in the newly enacted health reform law.

Though the consequences of complex social problems and associated health disparities – such as substandard housing and environmental conditions – can be treated medically, their causes are social and are often more successfully remedied through legal, rather than medical channels.

Medical-legal partnerships (MLPs) are now available at over 180 hospitals and health centers across 38 states. They are a valuable approach to addressing the legal needs affecting low-income and vulnerable patients, offering needed services that can improve overall health and well-being while simultaneously lowering the direct health care costs borne by health center patients and increasing health center revenue. In MLPs, health care staff in hospitals, clinics, and other sites identify legal problems, refer patients to an affiliated lawyer or legal services team, and work alongside attorneys to mitigate or resolve problems that negatively affect patient health. Medical-legal partnerships assist patients with securing healthcare and other public benefits, addressing housing issues, and obtaining support for family and domestic crises.

Community health centers, in addition to rendering direct clinical care, already provide a wide array of programs to their patients, offering enabling and ancillary services to address the complex emotional, social, and environmental factors that are prevalent in low-income communities and adversely affect patient health. Given their comprehensive approach to health care and high proportion of low-income patients, health centers could serve as an excellent entry point for low-income populations to legal services, with medical-legal partnerships serving as important catalysts to improve the overall health of their low income and vulnerable patients.

“Health centers have a long history of providing integrated and supportive services to their patients,” said Julio Bellber, president and CEO of the RCHN Community Health Foundation. “Legal services offered through medical legal partnerships are an excellent example of programs that can benefit the individual patient, the center and the community.”

“Medical legal partnerships are an effective way to address patterns of unmet need,”
said Peter Shin, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate research professor in the Department of Health Policy and a lead study author. “They will become increasingly important as health reform unfolds.”

The report is available here.

About the RCHN Community Health Foundation
The RCHN Community Health Foundation (RCHN CHF), is a New York based not-for-profit operating foundation whose mission is to support community health centers through strategic investment, outreach, education, and cutting-edge health policy research. The only foundation in the country dedicated to community health centers, the Foundation develops and supports programmatic and business initiatives related to community health center needs, building on a commitment to the provision of accessible, high quality, community-based healthcare services for underserved and medically vulnerable populations. For more information on RCHN CHF, visit www.rchnfoundation.org

About The George Washington University Medical Center
The George Washington University Medical Center is an internationally recognized interdisciplinary academic health center that has consistently provided high-quality medical care in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area since 1824. The Medical Center comprises the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the 11th oldest medical school in the country; the School of Public Health and Health Services, the only such school in the nation’s capital; GW Hospital, jointly owned and operated by a partnership between The George Washington University and a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, Inc.; and The GW Medical Faculty Associates, an independent medical practice with nearly 550 physicians in 47 clinical specialties. For more information on GWUMC, visit www.gwumc.edu.