The Professional Bridge

Jenna Dakroub photoBy:  Jenna Dakroub, Spring 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Student Intern

When people need legal advice, they call their lawyers. When people need medical advice, they call their doctors. While all of the HeLP clinic’s clients have sick children, many are referred specifically for Social Security denials or Social Security terminating their existing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. The issues raised in a typical SSI case overlap between both the medical and legal professions. When the two professions join together, the client gets more effective assistance.

During my first semester in the HeLP clinic, I did not have an opportunity to work extensively with medical students because most of my cases were in their closing stages. This semester, however, I have a brand new case. One of my first days in the clinic this semester was spent with a medical student. She taught me key things to look for when going through our clients’ medical records, which can sometimes be thousands of pages long. Reading medical records quickly can be crucial in an SSI case. Sometimes clients are referred to us close to their hearing dates. If we do not find the information we need in a timely manner, there is a risk the client may lose their chance at an appeal because there will not be enough time to prepare an adequate argument on their behalf.

While the HeLP clinic aims to train law students to become more medically competent, it also aims to help medical students become more legally competent. The clinic teaches doctors and medical students about some of the legal barriers our clients face. For instance, think about the following scenario:

A mother repeatedly takes her sick child to go see her doctor for asthma attacks. The child was recently denied for SSI benefits, and the mother is having a difficult time paying for the child’s asthma treatments. The mother fills out the paperwork to appeal the denial. The doctor, who has seen this child many times and has repeatedly instructed the mother to reduce the child’s exposure to mold, becomes very frustrated with the mother’s failure to do so. At the end of the visits, the doctor begins documenting that the mother is “non-compliant” or “refusing to follow instructions”. This is recorded in the medical records that are sent to the Social Security Administration and as a result, the appeal for SSI is also denied.

What the doctor does not realize, is that the mother may not be in a position to reduce the child’s mold exposure. The mother and her child may live in a house or apartment with a serious mold issue, which worsens the child’s asthma. The mother’s landlord will not return her calls and is refusing to do a housing inspection or make any repairs. She also cannot move to a different home because she cannot afford the costs associated with the moving expenses. The end result for the client is a sicker child and more expenses.

Medical students who work with us in the clinic, and doctors who have received some interdisciplinary training, may handle the above scenario differently. Rather than assuming their patient is not listening to their orders, they will be more likely to ask questions and recognize there is a legal issue that the client might need help with and may even refer them to a legal services provider or a medical-legal partnership, like the Health Law Partnership. The attorneys assigned to the client’s case will recognize that in addition to an SSI issue, there is also a housing issue that needs to be addressed. Both doctors and lawyers aim to help people and advocate on their behalf. When the two professions join together, they are able to provide more effective services to the people they serve.