Loyola’s Health Justice Project tackles health inequities and COVID-19

Interprofessional collaboration offers free testing and resources to support vulnerable populations

The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations has exposed structural inequities in the distribution of resources and access to health care in unprecedented ways. Faculty and students in Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Health Justice Project clinic and in Loyola’s schools of Public Health, Nursing, and Medicine have responded with outreach and services targeted at communities underrepresented in the allocation of resources yet overrepresented by COVID-19 cases and its financial and health consequences.

The COVID Equity Responsive Collaborative Loyola (CERCL) is a multidisciplinary team of public health, medicine, nursing, law, and social work students, faculty, and professionals working with community leaders and public health officials to provide free COVID-19 testing, training in contact tracing, and resources, advice, and referrals to support vulnerable community members. This testing, tracing, and supports initiative addresses the needs of communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Chicago’s western suburbs. More than 670 individuals have already been tested by CERCL at mobile sites in Maywood and Melrose Park near Chicago. Maywood, a community that is 68.3 percent Black and 27.3 percent Latinx, had a 7.9 percent COVID positivity rate. Melrose Park, a community that is 74.2 percent Latinx, had a 18.1 percent positivity rate, compared to the overall positivity rates of 5.8 percent in Cook County.

Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Health Justice Project (HJP), housed within the Beazley Institute of Health Law and Policy, is playing a key role in CERCL. HJP faculty, volunteers, and students helped develop a screening tool to identify community members with social and legal needs related to COVID-19. By screening community members at mobile testing sites, the HJP has identified and followed up with more than 100 patients in need of support and has served more than 23 thus far. The HJP also has worked with partners to develop a resource handout for testing participants and a website outlining essential COVID-19 resources.

“Since people who have tested positive can’t work, the most frequent areas of need are related to loss of income and the struggle to afford rent,” says Kate Mitchell, director of Loyola’s HJP. “We advise people on legal issues ranging from the Illinois eviction moratorium to eligibility for public assistance and Medicaid.” Other common issues include lack of health insurance or a primary care provider, and concerns about child care and access to education, Mitchell says.

Multifaceted cases

For vulnerable and low-income populations and people with disabilities and chronic health issues, COVID-19 has exacerbated financial, legal, and health challenges. Loyola’s HJP clinic—a course that includes both a seminar and a hands-on practical component—has worked to identify and address the complex social and legal challenges negatively affecting the health of patients of Chicago’s Erie Family Health Centers since 2010. Since March 2020, this work has included screening clients for needs related to COVID-19 and connecting them to resources and support to promote financial stability and access to health care. Supervised by faculty attorneys, Loyola law students serve as lead counsel on cases in the HJP clinic.

“Our students address the health-harming legal needs of patients through holistic civil legal services,” says Mitchell, explaining that students advocate for improved housing conditions, access to appropriate special education supports, health insurance and other public benefits, and Supplemental Security Income benefits for people with disabilities living in poverty. In addition, students help clients navigate guardianships and the divorce process. “We have also begun to engage in advocacy in the area of immigration law, since we have a large number of clients who are either undocumented or living with someone who is undocumented, and these immigration challenges directly impact the health and well-being of family members,” Mitchell says.

Loyola’s HJP clinic engages social work and medical students in its advocacy, allowing interprofessional student teams to meet the complex challenges of clients. In a current case that highlights the interprofessional and holistic nature of the HJP’s work, the HJP accepted a referral for a client who needed help with issues related to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “She’s a lawful permanent resident who would like to become a citizen and has a young child with autism and needs far beyond SNAP,” says Mitchell. “A law student is working alongside social work and medical students on different aspects of her case. The medical student is leading efforts to examine the child’s medical records to learn more about her diagnosis and evaluation and service needs; the social work student is focused on identifying additional resources and supports in the community; and the law student is leading efforts to obtain educational records, engage in research on special education laws, and complete immigration paperwork.”

HJP faculty, volunteers, and students helped develop a screening tool to identify community members with social and legal needs related to COVID-19.

New MLP with Loyola Medicine

This fall, the HJP is expanding to create a new medical-legal partnership (MLP) in Maywood in collaboration with Loyola University Health System and Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

This MLP will serve Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and the near western suburbs, including Maywood, Bellwood, Melrose Park, Berwyn, and Cicero. “These are primarily Black and Brown communities with a long history of diminished resources, structuralized racism, and environmental justice issues,” Mitchell says, adding that some have large immigrant populations.

“Loyola healthcare providers are really excited about this new partnership,” Mitchell says. “Not only will we be able to reach communities that are currently underserved, but we’ll also provide training and opportunities for interprofessional collaboration to Loyola students in law, social work, medicine, nursing, and public health.” The Maywood MLP is expected to begin serving clients by the end of 2020.

Developing a course on race and health equity

Professor Mitchell and new HJP Clinical Teaching Fellow Maya Watson, in collaboration with Professor Abigail Silva in Loyola’s Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health, are codeveloping a new course called Health Justice Lab: Race and Health Equity, using the CERCL project as a case study. This course will be offered to law students, public health students, and medical students, and will build upon the Beazley Institute of Health Law and Policy’s interprofessional and experiential curriculum exposing students to historical perspectives on racism in health care and the law and the impact of racism on health disparities.

“We in Loyola’s health law program were already educating our students on structural racism and how social determinants affect health and well-being,” Mitchell says. “This course is a chance to do a deeper dive into our history of racism and its impact on health and engage an interprofessional team of students in exploring the impact of racism and diminished resources in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.”

As with everything the HJP does, Mitchell says, “It’s important to collaborate with other disciplines to address complex issues requiring a multitiered interprofessional response.”

Learn more about the initiatives of Loyola’s Health Justice Project.

Attend Our Online Event

14th Annual Health Law Symposium: Viewing Health Justice Through the Lens of Public Health Crises

Friday, October 30

This year’s Symposium will explore the impact that public health crises such as COVID-19 have on vulnerable populations, will consider how public and private sector responses address these populations’ needs, and look upstream to identify how social determinants of health made these populations vulnerable prior to such crises. Presented in conjunction with Annals of Health Law & Life Sciences. Registration and Illinois continuing legal education credit are free. Register Here