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Sometimes, good legal help is the best medicine

Ten medical-legal partnerships in California bring doctors and lawyers together to improve patients' living conditions. The program serving South L.A. and Compton has assisted 866 clients since August

March 12, 2010|By Anna Gorman
  • Attorney Dennis Hsieh enjoys a light moment with client Maria Perez. Perez, who had sought medical help at St. John's Well Child and Family Center, feels that many of her ailments are the result of landlord neglect at her apartment. Employed by Neighborhood Legal Services in Pacoima, Hsieh spends two days a week at St. John's, gathering information so he can help families in South Los Angeles and Compton address the legal problems affecting their health.
Attorney Dennis Hsieh enjoys a light moment with client Maria Perez. Perez,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Maria Perez's fever had climbed to 103, her body ached and she had trouble breathing. After being told in the emergency room that she had pneumonia, Perez went to a clinic in South Los Angeles for a follow-up appointment.

The doctor asked Perez about her housing situation. Her apartment had cockroaches and mice, Perez said, and rain came through a broken window and filled the walls with mold. The doctor wrote prescriptions to treat the pneumonia and an asthma flare-up and then did something that he hoped would prevent her from getting even sicker: He sent her down the hall to talk to a lawyer.

The attorney, Dennis Hsieh, contacted both the landlord and the Los Angeles Housing Department. The living conditions improved, and so did Perez's health.

"The medicine wasn't what cured me," said Perez, 49. "It was Mr. Dennis and what he did."

Hsieh, who is employed by Neighborhood Legal Services in Pacoima, spends two days a week at St. John's Well Child and Family Center, gathering information so he can help families in South Los Angeles and Compton address the legal problems affecting their health. He uses the rest of his time filing restraining orders in domestic violence cases, pressing officials to restore Medi-Cal coverage, targeting unscrupulous landlords and applying for immigration benefits.

Jim Mangia, St. John's chief executive, said the program has become an integral part of the clinic, whose patients have to worry about much more than their physical health.

"The socioeconomic conditions in which our families live are slapping our doctors in the face," Mangia said. For example, he said, clinic providers often see children with cockroaches in their ears, lead in their blood and bed bug rashes on their legs. "Someone has to hold slum lords accountable for the slum housing conditions, which are poisoning our children," he said.

National trend

The partnership between Neighborhood Legal Services and St. John's is part of a growing trend to bring together doctors and lawyers in low-income neighborhoods across the nation. In California, there are 10 such programs that serve 23 hospitals and health centers. Nationwide, there are 76 partnerships at 180 hospitals and health centers.

The first medical-legal partnership opened in 1993 after Barry Zuckerman, a Boston doctor, lamented to an attorney friend that his pediatric patients kept returning with the same ailments.

"The model makes so much sense," he said. "We can do all we want medically but because of these problems, if changes aren't made, nobody is going to get better. . . . The unfortunate reality is that we need lawyers."

The lawyers rarely go to court, he said, but they do prevent utility shut-offs, stop evictions and get access to food stamps for the patients. Zuckerman said, however, that helping individual patients isn't enough. Now, he said, doctors and lawyers are pushing for legislation and policy changes to eliminate barriers to healthcare and change the way providers relate to their patients.

Ellen Lawton, a lawyer and executive director of Zuckerman's National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, said poor people don't often seek legal help but do go to health clinics. "People don't recognize the daily problems that they have living in poverty, that many of the problems they have are actually legal problems," she said.

Hsieh, 28, a Yale Law School graduate, took a leave from medical school to do a two-year fellowship to work at Neighborhood Legal Services and start the partnership in Los Angeles. When the fellowship ends this summer, he will return to UC San Francisco School of Medicine. Neighborhood Legal Services plans to find another attorney to continue the program.

In South Los Angeles, Hsieh meets with clients in a makeshift office and takes detailed notes in a yellow pad. Clients line up to meet with him, often holding stacks of documents. Since August 2008, Hsieh said, he has opened 513 cases and helped 866 clients.

Months after Perez's initial meeting with Hsieh, she returned to see him last month. Perez told him there were new problems at the apartment: The front door didn't close properly, the sink leaked and there were still cockroaches. She also showed him a notice from the landlord warning that she would be evicted if she didn't pay her $687 rent, even though she already had paid. The notice also accused her of slamming the door and being too loud.

"That's not the truth," Perez said.

Hsieh said he would send the landlord's attorney a letter telling him to fix the problems and stop harassing her. He advised Perez to pay her March rent with a money order and to call immediately if she received an eviction notice. When she did get the notice, she called Hsieh, who immediately started working on a defense.

Perez's landlord, Orlando Beltran, declined to comment. He referred questions to his attorney, E. Houston Touceda, who declined to comment, saying he did not have his files on hand.

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