As Ellen Lawton saw the same sick children from low-income families repeatedly re-entering Boston Medical Center in the ‘90s, she knew it would take more than treatment to keep them out of the hospital for good.
Medical experts can’t help in certain cases, the lawyer said, like when senior citizens are denied insurance or landlords don’t maintain healthy living conditions.
Lawton, a member of the nation’s pioneering team of lawyers and doctors working in health care, has brought her expertise to GW’s school of public health this month as part of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership.
“With an asthmatic child living in a house with mold, the doctor can treat an acute asthmatic attack, but can’t deal with the larger problem,” Joel Teitelbaum, co-director and associate professor, said. The center is also exploring further funding options to address the specific needs of veterans, individuals with special needs and Native American communities.
Once on board, lawyers address patients’ long-term needs by providing uninsured or disadvantaged patients with access to available aid and benefits, a task often handled by social workers.
“Social workers hit a glass ceiling pretty rapidly given our complex bureaucracies,” Lawton said.
But lawyers won’t replace social workers in health care centers. Instead, they will join the network of professionals surrounding patients, training clinicians and social workers to recognize the underlying causes of poor health, like poor living conditions, Teitelbaum said.
Medical centers and law offices began pairing up in the 1990s, starting with Boston Medical Center’s chief pediatrician Barry Zuckerman, who grew frustrated with high readmission rates among low-income patients. With health care costs on the rise, hundreds of centers have since embraced these types of partnerships to better cater toward low-income individuals.
“The model started to spread through word of mouth,” Lawton, who recently joined GW’s Department of Health Policy, said. “After running the local program, we were so inundated with inquiries from lawyers and doctors around the country.”
Despite becoming integral members of the health care team, lawyers are often not employed by the health care centers they work in, instead relying on existing resources such as federal and state funding, as well as the legal community’s commitment to pro-bono work.
Moving to Foggy Bottom will help the center promote policy change at national and institutional levels, Lawton said.
“Moving to Washington, [D.C.] has provided wonderful opportunities to work with government partners who are embracing this model,” Lawton said, pointing to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Justice.
The center’s relocation was backed by independent funding from nonprofits like Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Kresge Foundation. SPHHS will provide office space and faculty for the program.