Doctors and lawyers partner up: Ensuring poor families get care and services needed


By Martha Hasselbacher, JD

Both doctors and lawyers have professional ethics that require them to serve those who cannot afford their services. That is one of the factors that distinguishes these professions. How can they effectively work together to serve this population?

The answer is a Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP). There are now 294 MLPs serving individuals in 41 states throughout the country. In Louisville, we have Doctors & Lawyers for Kids.

Doctors and lawyers have joined forces in indigent pediatric clinics to ensure that the poor families get the care and services they need. Doctors have the training and expertise to heal wounds, cure diseases and provide preventive medical care.

Lawyers understand that many of the social determinants of health–bad housing, poor nutrition and domestic violence cannot be cured with a prescription. Legal services can make a difference.

Unmet Needs

Every low-income person has two-to-three unmet civil legal needs that create barriers to healthy eating, safe housing employment and safety. Addressing those needs improves a person’s health and helps medical treatment work more effectively.

Every low-income person has two-to-three unmet civil legal needs that create barriers to healthy eating, safe housing employment and safety.

Doctors are in a unique position to identify these problems. Our Doctors & Lawyers for Kids team trains these healthcare professionals to identify legal problems that affect their patients’ health and well-being.

Legal triage in the clinical setting means that we catch problems early before families are in crisis. Then we provide free legal services on site in the clinics. Legal services are provided by dedicated legal staff and by volunteer attorneys providing their help through the Pro Bono Consortium of the Louisville Bar Association. The Legal Aid Society also supports Doctors & Lawyers for Kids with its expertise in poverty law.

Celia’s Story

To see Doctors & Lawyers for Kids in action, consider Celia’s* story. Celia’s son, Tim, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She was unable to work her two jobs, and she was threatened with eviction. She had applied for Supplemental Security Income on Tim’s behalf, but his claim was denied.

During this turbulent time, Tim turned eighteen, and Celia needed authorization to continue making decisions about his medical care. Tim’s disease had progressed to the point where he was unable to make those decisions for himself.

With the assistance of Doctors & Lawyers for Kids, Celia avoided eviction from her home. The Social Security Administration reversed their initial decision on Tim’s claim and Celia was awarded guardianship of her son.

Maria’s Story

To understand how early intervention by Doctors & Lawyers for Kids can build resilience in families, read Maria’s* story. Maria was afraid of her son’s father, Sergio. When Sergio would begin drinking, his temper grew violent, and he would beat her. She was afraid that he would kill her or hurt their infant son, Carlos.

After a night of drinking, Sergio began to hit Maria in the presence of their son. Maria called family and got to safety, but she was unsure about the future. A Doctors & Lawyers for Kids attorney helped Maria get a no contact domestic violence order that protected her from Sergio. She was also awarded temporary sole custody of her son. Now Maria can begin again, and Carlos is safe in a nonviolent home.

Doctors & Lawyers for Kids provides training and legal services in the clinics of U of L Department of Pediatrics, Family Health Center Clinics in Portland and Iroquois neighborhoods and Norton Children’s Hospital and downtown pediatric practices. Expanding services to other locations is planned as resources become available.

*names have been changed

-Martha Hasselbacher, JD, is board president at Doctors & Lawyers for Kids.