Under One Roof: TRLA’s MLAF Program

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) has begun a new project in the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio that is revolutionizing the way that legal services are provided in the healthcare industry. TRLA’s new Medical-Legal Assistance for Families (MLAF) program is helping lawyers and doctors serve patients who are facing related medical and legal issues. Having completed its first year of operation, the medical-legal partnership promises to provide a new and effective way of empowering low-income medical patients with the legal tools necessary to live healthy lives.

Sonya’s Story
sonyaWhen “Sonya” was born her mother, “Alyssa,” knew that her daughter was going to be spending a lot of time surrounded by doctors and nurses. Sonya was born deaf and with an assortment of health problems that required serious medical treatment.

The situation looked particularly hopeful when, several years ago, Sonya’s doctors approached Alyssa about having Sonya get a cochlear implant. If successful, the implant would give Sonya the ability to hear the world for the first time. As a result, she began regular visits with her doctor to prepare for the procedure and work on her disability.

After the procedure and when she was old enough, Sonya enrolled in school. But Alyssa was worried. Sonya needed special attention to work with her auditory and speech impairments. She deserved a good education and Alyssa was determined to make sure she got it. But the public school system wasn’t doing the best it could to work with Sonya’s special needs. Alyssa noticed that her daughter was still having trouble communicating using anything other than hand gestures. Alyssa knew what she needed to do – she needed to get Sonya transferred to the local school for the deaf.

But the school system was proving difficult to navigate and Sonya’s doctors shared in Alyssa’s concerns. Luckily, Alyssa was working with medical professionals who are part of TRLA’s Medical-Legal Assistance for Families (MLAF) program so they referred her to TRLA for help.

By working with TRLA, Alyssa learned about Sonya’s right to a quality education.With TRLA’s help, Alyssa secured important meetings with school officials that allowed her to secure Sonya’s placement in a program that would address her special needs. As a result, Sonya received special tutors during the summer months to help her transition into her new class and started the year at a new school that will accommodate to her disability and help her get the best education possible.

A History of Partnerships
The idea for a medical-legal partnership began in 1993 when Dr. Barry Zuckerman founded the program at Boston Medical Center. By bringing poverty lawyers into the medical setting, Zuckerman found that hospitals were able to help low-income patients solve the underlying issues causing their health problems.

In some cases, respiratory problems might be due to a moldy roof that a landlord refuses to fix. In others, a doctor might discover that a mother was having problems getting educators to adapt to her child’s disability. In other words, in many instances Zuckerman encountered patients who didn’t just need medical help to address their problems, they needed legal help as well.

Our Work
Zuckerman’s model for medical-legal partnerships gradually spread across the country. And, like many other organizations, TRLA took Zuckerman’s model and has begun to develop a program that helps low-income Texans with their medical and legal needs at the same time.

In 2008, TRLA opened its MLAF program in the Rio Grande Valley and in San Antonio. In Brownsville, the program is a partnership with the Brownsville Community Health Center and is run by TRLA attorney Kristin Small. In San Antonio, the program is a partnership with the University of Texas Health Science Center. TRLA’s program is the first active medical-legal partnership in Texas.

Staffed by five employees in its San Antonio office, TRLA’s new medical-legal partnership aims to continue to help low-income Texans empower themselves by using both the legal system and the medical system.

“We can do more together than we can alone.” ~ MLAF Director Susan Zinn

The idea is simple – from the moment a low-income patient enters the medical system they are paired with medical professionals who help them with their health needs. But these professionals have also been trained by TRLA staff on how to identify patients who might also have legal needs. Those patients are then referred to the partnership office located within the same building. When they enter the MLAF program patients get the same legal advice and support that other clients of TRLA receive. In the year that the partnerships have been open, TRLA has helped clients with legal problems including landlord-tenant issues, special education needs, and federal benefits such as food stamps.

According to TRLA attorney and MLAF director Susan Zinn, the driving belief behind the partnership is simple – “We can do more together than we can alone.”

The Future
TRLA hopes to continue the success of the MLAF program by expanding the partnership to several major cities in Texas including El Paso and Austin. The partnership program hopes to also expand to Dallas and Houston in the near future.

On September 25th the MLAF office in SanAntonio will host its official open house celebration. All supporters of TRLA, the program’s partner organizations, and the general public are invited to attend. For more information on the event as it approaches visit us online at http://www.trla.org/trlatimes.


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