Judy Balch had come to the Wilmington Health Center for a medical appointment when she told a social worker that she was worried about being evicted from her apartment. The social worker referred her to Melody Osuna, an attorney assigned to help patients with legal issues.
Osuna, who works for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, helped Balch complete and submit the necessary documents to fight the eviction in court. “Had we not done this, she would have defaulted on her eviction case and lost her housing,” Osuna said.
Balch, 72, knew she needed to file an answer in the case but said she has both physical and mental health issues and just couldn’t make it down to the courthouse. “It was a miracle for me because I was incapable of coping with the situation on my own,” she said. “It completely relieved the stress I was under.”
Osuna is part of the Medical Legal Community Partnership-Los Angeles, a collaboration between the L.A. County Department of Health Services and nonprofit legal services organizations. The attorneys provide free legal help to patients, addressing barriers to food, housing, benefits and employment – all of which threaten their wellbeing.
The program is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people are dealing with job losses, inability to pay rent or cut-off benefits. “There are more legal issues due to COVID-19,” said Eve Rubell, who manages the program for the health services department. And even after the crisis passes, there may be an increase in homelessness, joblessness and domestic violence. “The attorneys are prepared to help.”
The UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute recently released a policy brief about the program that found embedding the lawyers in clinics helps build patients’ trust in both in the health care and legal systems. In addition to providing direct legal assistance to patients, the attorneys become part of the health care team and train clinic staff about housing protections, benefits advocacy and other legal issues.
“People don’t always think about the legal needs of vulnerable populations and how not being able to address those legal needs leads to the deterioration of their health,” said Francesca Cameron, a UCLA research and evaluation program manager and one of the authors of the policy brief. The program is “really innovative in its approach.”
The authors also made several recommendations, including that health insurers and the state Medi-Cal program should provide long-term funding for programs like Los Angeles County’s Medical Legal Community Partnership. It is currently being funded by the Whole Person Care program. Legal services are unattainable for many, Cameron said. “These programs are really essential, and they can’t continue without sustainable funding.”
Los Angeles County’s program started in 2018 and at the time, was only at one health clinic. Now it is available to all patients at the Department of Health Services and to all participants in the Whole Person Care program, which serves complex Medi-Cal patients. In the program, the county partners with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, the lead agency, as well as Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Mental Health Advocacy Services and Bet Tzedek.
During the pandemic, the services are being offered telephonically. Referrals are made from clinic staff and from community health workers throughout the county. Between March 2018 and August 2020, the program served more than 2,700 patients. Of the patients helped, 44 percent were Latinx and 31 percent were African-American.
In Judy Balch’s eviction case, she said she can’t imagine moving and would have nowhere to go. Osuna said the landlord shouldn’t be trying to evict a 72-year-old with disabilities in the middle of the pandemic. She is glad she was able to connect with Balch through the health clinic.
“Judy was able to go to the doctor for a health issue, a very basic need, and get access to an attorney to address another basic need, housing, that ultimately affects her health in the long run,” Osuna said.
Anna Gorman is the Director of Community Partnerships and Programs at the L.A. County Department of Health Services. She helps oversee L.A. County’s Medical Legal Community Partnership.