Mount Sinai Health System forges new partnership to offer free legal services for its most vulnerable patients

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Mount Sinai Health System, an integrated health system with seven hospital campuses in the New York metropolitan area, is now addressing another unmet need for its most vulnerable and indigent patients: free legal services. (Getty/Sam Edwards)
Social factors often determine the health outcomes of patients, and more hospitals have made efforts to connect patients to necessary services, such as housing, food and transportation to medical appointments.

But one New York health system is now addressing another unmet need for its most vulnerable and indigent patients: free legal services.

Mount Sinai Health System, an integrated health system with seven hospital campuses in the New York metropolitan area, recently launched the Mount Sinai Medical-Legal Partnership (MSMLP), an independent nonprofit organization, to address unmet needs of their patients who live well below the poverty line. It was created to enhance legal services already provided by lawyers from LegalHealth of New York Legal Assistance Group, Legal Aid and Youth Represent.

Although these patients receive high-quality medical care at the hospitals, in many cases they have legal issues that actually are barriers to good health, explained Beth Essig, executive vice president and general counsel, Mount Sinai Health System, in an interview with FierceHealthcare. Unless these legal issues are tackled, the patients will continue to have health problems, she said.

Essig said the partnership harnesses the support of legal talent in New York City to integrate it into the health delivery system. The population health management initiative aims to prevent and remedy the social and environmental conditions that are rooted in legal issues, such as housing, education, personal safety and access to healthcare.

Although it’s often a challenge to find lawyers willing to do pro bono work, Allison Charney, co-chair of the MSMLP board of directors and partner with Foley & Lardner LLP, told FierceHealthcare that the health issue seems to have touched a nerve with people, and many of the 200 attorneys who attended a kick-off event in early May have expressed interest in offering their services for free, she said.

Sena Kim-Reuter, president of the MSMLP, said attorneys are needed to help with three programs:

  • Legal services for patients at Mount Sinai’s new Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, including changing patients' gender markers on legal documents and changing patients' names. Many of these patients are also subject to widespread discrimination and stigma. 
  • Trust and estate planning to help terminally ill patients of Mount Sinai Palliative Care Services with end-of-life needs, including guardianship/custody for minor children of single parents. The legal services will provide peace of mind to patients who don’t know who will care for their children after they die.
  • Legal services for patients at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Roosevelt Children and Family Services, who are at high risk of poor life outcomes, including eventual justice system involvement. The partnership was awarded a $1.33 million grant through Manhattan DA’s Criminal Justice Investment initiative to enable full-time attorneys from Legal Aid to provide free legal services. The program focuses on legal screenings for families; education advocacy for parents and guardians of the patients; training for case managers; advocating special education supports and services in schools; and representing youth in suspension hearings.