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The Doctor Is In, So Is Your Lawyer

HHC expands medical-legal partnership to offer free hospital-based legal services for low income patients.

It wasn't a typical visit to the doctor for the 34-year old single mom with three kids with breathing problems. As the HHC medical team addressed the needs of the youngest, an infant with frequent ER visits who had been on and off a nebulizer, they also inquired about conditions in the building they lived in. What they learned was more than a doctor can fix.

Overrun with vermin, the building had mice, rats and roaches that crawled inside the baby's crib. Management never did more than put steel wool into the holes of the walls.

Doctors helped with an unusual prescription: a referral to a LegalHealth lawyer who works onsite at Woodhull Hospital. The lawyer put the building management on notice for the poor conditions and stood ready to take it to court. As a result, the holes were repaired, the vents were cleaned, and the building exterminated.

"Medical care alone is not enough to address the complex health needs of many of our patients," said Ross Wilson, M.D., HHC Chief Medical Officer. "LegalHealth has become an integral member of the HHC healthcare team. They are a true partner in our ability to combat the underlying social threats to good health."

Over the past ten years, LegalHealth, a division of the New York Legal Assistance Group, has offered free hospital-based legal help to thousands of low income HHC patients who need help to get food stamps and unemployment benefits, avoid evictions, obtain visas and navigate other immigration matters, and even secure eligibility to receive organ transplants.

“We are honored to have this longstanding and growing partnership with HHC and believe that the legal services we provide furthers HHC’s commitment to combat the social determinants of health.” said Randye Retkin, Director of LegalHealth.

In addition to onsite free legal clinics, LegalHealth trains health care professionals to recognize legal issues that may negatively affect medical outcomes. That helps HHC doctors, social workers and other staff make appropriate referrals to the on-site lawyers from the legal services team.

So far, LegalHealth has handled 15,500 legal matters on behalf of more than 10,000 patients at eight HHC hospitals. Immigration, public benefits and housing issues are the top three problem areas that generate the most referrals.


Violet, a patient at Kings County Hospital Center who came to the US from Jamaica with a green card when she was in her 70’s, was referred to the hospital-based legal clinic by her geriatric specialist. She needed help with immigration issues and didn’t know what her options were, or for what benefits she might be eligible.

The LegalHealth team established that Violet was just a few months away from citizenship eligibility. They helped her pass the citizenship test. As a citizen, Violet is now eligible to receive SSI benefits.

For Allen, a patient at Bellevue Hospital Center, a referral by his social worker made all the difference in the world.

He was in relatively good health until he developed a tumor and began radiation treatments at Bellevue. When he was not in the hospital, Allen was exhausted and sick from his treatments. He was only able to work a day or two per week for a few hours at a time at his job as a Manhattan hotel agent. Bills began to pile up and Allen fell behind on his rent.

With the LegalHealth attorney’s help Allen and his family were able to gain access to food stamps and short-term disability – providing him and his family with enough resources to cover their expenses during Allen’s treatment and recovery.

Allen and son

LegalHealth’s record of service to HHC patients has been such a success that on February 27 the HHC Board of Directors agreed to expand this medical-legal partnership to include new legal clinics at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, Metropolitan Hospital Center in Manhattan and Queens Hospital Center.

Now HHC patients at all 11 public hospitals will have quick access to legal services with weekly half-day legal clinics on site and to attorneys dedicated to supporting patient cases, including court appearances, legal research and preparation of immigration filings.

“HHC Social workers in particular witness first-hand how social and economic crisis can impact patient health. Our hospitals and healthcare centers often serve as a sanctuary and a gateway to other services in the community even when their problems are not exclusively medical,” said Sandra Chaiken, Director of Social Work at the HHC North Bronx Health Care Network, which includes Jacobi and North Central Bronx Hospital.

“This medical-legal partnership model allows us to efficiently deploy our resources and focus on meeting the patient's health and psychosocial needs while the onsite LegalHealth team can address those problems that have legal remedy. This is a powerful combination that makes a deep impact in people’s lives,” she added.


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HHC 2014 Stats

  • Staffed Beds: 6,684
  • Clinic Visits: 4,472,960
  • ER Visits: 1,179,436
  • Discharges: 205,791
  • Births: 18,564
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