Widener Law medical-legal partnership thrives on service
Public Relations - Published: July 15, 2013

Daniel Atkins, adjunct professor, and HELP: MLP staff attorney Laura Handel '08.

Students looking to gain skills and experience have a number of public-interest opportunities available through Widener Law’s multiple clinics, and programs offered through the Public Interest Resource Center in Delaware or Public Interest Initiative in Harrisburg.

Another program available through a partnership between the law school and Chester, Pa. health care and social service providers presents an opportunity for students to earn academic credit while serving others through a unique project housed at Widener’s Health Law Institute.

HELP: MLP, the Health, Education and Legal assistance Project, a Medical-Legal Partnership, was created in 2009 to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in Chester, one of the country’s poorest communities. Project staff partner with health-care and social service providers in Chester to identify and address legal problems that are adversely affecting clients’ health. Law students become involved with the collaboration when they enroll in either a fall poverty law class or a spring disability law class. The work is important. These legal problems are considered the social determinants of health. Public health experts accept that they are crucial to improving the well-being of people who are poor.

Widener was the first law school in the region to host a medical-legal partnership and it remains the only one to be the primary legal services provider.

“The feedback from our students and our partners is really very positive,” said Daniel Atkins, co-founder and director of the project, who serves as an adjunct professor on the Delaware campus. Atkins co-teaches with Emeritus Professor Robert L. Hayman Jr. and staff attorneys Laura Handel and Jordan Mickman. The students get classroom instruction and field experience, where they see firsthand how the law can be used to help people who are poor.

“It gives students an opportunity to work closely with poverty lawyers and their clients. They see what the practice of law, and in particular public-interest law, is like,” Atkins said.

Through medical-legal partnerships, attorneys train health care providers and social workers on what kinds of questions to ask patients in an effort to determine if unmet legal needs could be contributing to health problems. Then, when health providers refer patients as potential clients, the legal staff works to determine how they can help, and sets out to address those social determinants of health.

The project serves low-income residents of Chester and surrounding communities primarily identified by case managers at Crozer-Keystone Healthy Start, a social service program that supports low-income pregnant women and parents of children under age two, and Crozer-Keystone Nurse-Family Partnership, which provides visiting nurses to educate low-income, first-time parents in Delaware County, Pa.

Law students shadow staff attorneys, assist with client screenings, conduct legal research and analyze medical records. Atkins said they also develop training materials for the partners and the clients that educate and inform about aspects of the law that impact the client and advocacy community. The project is staffed by two full-time attorneys, Handel and Mickman, and two part-time public-health- law specialists, Shannon Mace and Shloka Joshi. All are Widener Law alumni. Part-time attorney Megan Mahle is also on staff.

Atkins worked with Hayman and Professor John G. Culhane in founding the project and creating ways students could grow from it. “After having taught poverty law and disability law with Professor Hayman for 15 years we thought it would be a richer experience to infuse the course with experiential learning opportunities that complement the doctrinal law students are learning in the classroom,” he said.
To date, more than 30 students have enrolled in the classes and earned academic credit through the experience. Others may volunteer without academic credit through the Martin Luther King Semester of Service program.

The program has helped more than 400 people in 200 cases, by:
  • Helping homeless families acquire housing and saving homes from foreclosure.
  • Overturning Medicaid denials.
  • Preserving or restoring utility service.
  • Forcing landlords to improve living conditions.
  • Protecting custodial rights of parents.
  • Preserving entitlements to income-eligibility programs that provide food assistance.
Generous support from Widener Law alumnus Cary Flitter established a consumer law fellowship which has greatly increased services to clients. Still, Atkins said fundraising in the current economic climate is not easy. He is grateful for Flitter’s assistance, philanthropic and government grants and steadfast support from Crozer-Keystone Health System and Widener Law. This has allowed the project to mature into a national leader in the medical-legal partnership movement. Project attorneys have presented at national conferences, published articles about their work and provided technical assistance to fledgling partnerships around the country. He continues to seek monetary support that will allow it to flourish.

“This project is a point of pride for Widener Law, its Health Law Institute and the university,” Atkins said. “It beautifully demonstrates the school’s role as a community leader – from providing it an academic home, to having educated the alumni who are assisting its clients, to making it a service learning opportunity for current students. It has helped many people in profound ways who would not otherwise have received vital legal assistance to remain housed, put food on the table, stay warm in the winter, receive health care and keep their families intact.”

To learn more about HELP: MLP visit http://www.helpmlp.org/. Contact Dan Atkins at da.helpmlp@gmail.com for information about how to register for classes and earn academic credit through the project.

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