Rutgers Law School in Camden is lending a hand to improve the health and well-being of vulnerable populations in and around Camden.
Combining the expertise of lawyers, nurses, social workers, and community health workers, the Rutgers Law School’s Medical-Legal Partnership works with the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to put patients on the right track to get their basic needs met for health care, housing, food, personal and family stability, and education.
At the Camden Coalition, care team members meet with patients at Cooper, Lourdes, and other area hospitals to help coordinate patient care. CCHP staff provide guidance to people who frequently use the hospital in place of a relationship with a primary care provider. With the help of CCHP, patients learn how to access care they need through a primary care doctor or other specialists, get assistance with managing their medications, and can even have transportation arranged to get them to appointments.
Often, the medical issue is one of many pressing issues the patient is facing. A patient may share that he or she is feeling anxiety because of an unresolved legal issue. That’s when care team members refer patients to Rutgers Medical-Legal Partnership attorney Jeremy Spiegel.
“The idea of an arrest warrant hanging over your head or the possibility of losing your home is extremely stressful,” says Spiegel. “That’s not helping anyone with a medical issue.” He adds that the nervous tension can affect the client’s ability to make sound decisions.
The Rutgers program provides Camden-area residents with resources to turn to for help to avoid a downward spiral that could be difficult to repair.
“Being a poor person can be enormously expensive,” says Kim Mutcherson, Rutgers Law co-dean and professor, who co-founded the Medical-Legal Partnership with Carol Wallinger, a clinical professor of law.
“If you get a ticket or a fine and you don’t show up for the court date, now it’s a $50 ticket, plus fines, and you don’t show up for the next court date because you don’t have a fixed address and so the notice about the court date was sent to where you lived two addresses ago,” says Mutcherson. “Now, you have the $50 ticket, and you have the fines, and there’s a warrant out for your arrest. That’s the way that these things really can snowball.”
Since the partnership between Rutgers Law School and the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers began in November 2017, the program has helped clients avoid eviction from their homes and prevented employers from wrongfully limiting employees’ disability benefits.
“Sometimes just having a lawyer make a phone call and write a letter speeds things up a whole lot,” says Spiegel.
Before teaming up with Rutgers Law, the Camden Coalition handled legal issues by referring patients to community legal services and pro bono attorneys from local law firms.
“The partnership allows us to integrate a lawyer onto our interdisciplinary care team in order to truly provide whole-person care and address the various legal barriers our patients face,” says Laura Buckley, Camden Coalition’s senior program manager for care management initiatives.
Buckley says addressing the patient’s legal issues along with their medical needs ultimately leads to improved health.
Mutcherson says the Rutgers program will eventually expand into a full-fledged clinic at the law school, with law students handling the legal work, and will include opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations involving law, nursing, medical, and social work students as the partnership expands to Cooper Hospital’s Addiction Medicine Clinic and the Cooper Medical School at Rowan University.
“The MLP fits in really well with what we try to do at Rutgers–Camden, which is to really be a part of the community that surrounds us, and to learn from, be integrated into, and be helpful to that community,” says Mutcherson.
The MLP is generously funded by the Holman Auto Group and the Rutgers/Rowan Joint Board.