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CUHCC legal clinic merges human rights with medical care

The Minneapolis law firm Stinson Leonard Street LLP specializes in commercial litigation: partnership venture disputes, class action law suits, breaches of contract.

But over in the Phillips neighborhood, the firm’s Director of Pro-bono Theresa Hughes sits in a trailer, discussing immigration law and custody cases with health care patients.

She oversees a medical-legal partnership at the Community-University Health Care Center (CUHCC).

“Access to food, housing stability, the right to a healthy basic life – in a way, these are both legal rights and medical rights,” Hughes said.

The CUHCC legal clinic is a long-standing partnership. In fact, it’s the longest of its kind in Minnesota. It originated in 1993, when the CUHCC Executive Director, Amos Deinard, noticed legal issues were playing into his patients’ health.

He saw children suffering from asthma, but the treatment they received often was unsuccessful. Not due to quality of care, but issues with their living conditions, like asbestos, which exacerbated their condition. Deinard approached Leonard Street and Deinard (now Stinson Leonard Street LLP), his father’s law firm, to consider working with CUHCC to help patients bring ineffective landlords and other housing issues to court. The managing partner, George Reilly approved the partnership.

Today, Hughes meets with CUHCC patients to go over legal issues reaching beyond landlord-tenant issues.

She sees many issues in family law, public benefits like social security, and immigration. Depending on the nature of the request, she refers patients to Stinson Leonard Street lawyers who develop a case.

“It’s whatever the needs are,” Hughes said. “I think it’s an important service because CUHCC really focuses on whole treatment for the entire patient. It’s not just the aches and pains that bring them into the clinic.”

Mind, Body, Spirt – and Law

At CUHCC, staff consider everything contributing to quality of life – not just physical health. Social, environmental and economic factors all shape how people take care of themselves and what health conditions they may encounter.

“We view health from a whole-person perspective,”said Colleen McDonald Diouf, M.A., CUHCC CEO. “We can provide the best physical and mental health care, but often people need help and expertise outside of the clinic to meet their health and recovery goals.”

Establishing citizenship, working out custody troubles or finding a suitable apartment are all common cases for the legal clinic. Patients can clear up some of these issues which may be creating stress or limiting options, thus impacting their mental and physical health.

Hughes said most of the patients she works with have mental illness or do not speak English as a first language. It’s already difficult to navigate the legal system, she says, but these populations are particularly vulnerable. Add to that a lack of resources and health problems and these patients can find themselves in a never-ending loop.

There isn’t extensive data on the impact of medical-legal partnerships, but one study out of Stanford in 2010 found a positive impact on two-thirds of studied families who received legal aid through a similar program.

UMN also has a medical-legal partnership through the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic, led by UMN law students.

At CUHCC, 80 lawyers and paralegals from Stinson Leonard Street LLP worked on 74 different CUHCC cases last year. They saw 144 people total.

“One year we served people from 56 different countries, right here in our little trailer office at CUHCC,” Hughes said.

The impact makes a meaningful difference in the community, McDonald Diouf said.

“With their legal affairs in order, our patients can focus on being healthy,” McDonald Diouf said. “We’re grateful for this partnership which helps our patients have a voice in legal issues that impact their health.”

The Midwest Healthcare Legal Partnership will host a conference on medical-legal partnership Thursday June 1. Former UMN VP for Health Sciences Frank Cerra, M.D., will be a keynote speaker.

The University of Minnesota is driven to protect human rights. See how more UMN faculty are fighting for and defending those rights.

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