Project takes on legal side of health care inequality

Health Justice

Emily Benfer, director of the Health Justice Project, speaks with students.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to come at it from all sides. The newest of the law school’s five clinics, the Health Justice Project, aims to do just that.

The clinic’s format, a medical-legal partnership, takes a holistic approach to clients’ problems—“We call it preventive lawyering,” says Director Emily Benfer—by identifying the cascading barriers to health for low-income families.

These barriers can include food instability, disability, difficulty in school, unsafe or unsanitary housing, or problems with public benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps. Cases may include a variety of health-related matters, such as housing code violations, special education, or public benefits denials.

The clinic is a partnership with the Erie Family Health Center, which has 13 sites across Chicago. Law students enrolled in the clinic will help train health care professionals to identify social determinants of health problems that could be resolved through legal intervention. Once clients are referred, the clinic provides advice, other referrals, and legal representation.

“Research shows that social conditions often impact health more than medical conditions,” says David Buchanan, MD, MS, chief medical officer for the Erie Family Health Center. “For many patients, the Health Justice Project partnership will have a greater impact on their health and longevity than any pill our physicians could provide or medical procedure we could perform.”

The Health Justice Project, together with Erie and representatives of Loyola’s schools of medicine and social work, will work to address systemic problems through public policy reform.

Students are excited about the new clinic. Says Drew McCormick, a recent graduate who worked with Benfer: “Through experiential learning at the clinic, Loyola students will discover the true meaning of advocacy.”

The Health Justice Project also allows law students to gain experience with direct client representation and will help them to develop practical lawyering skills. The 88 law students who have participated in the clinic since December 2010 have served more than 1,000 patients of Erie Family Health Center, trained more than 140 health care providers, and collaborated with social work, public health, and medical students to overcome social determinants of health for their clients.

 Learn more about Loyola’s Health Justice Project here.