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Lawyers Helping the Poor and the Sick. True Story.

Lawyers get plenty of bad press, but they also do a lot of good in times when they are desperately needed to right wrongs. Take the work initiative by Barry Zuckerman, head of paediatrics as Boston City Hospital, who established the Family Advocacy Program with three lawyers to prod landlords, secure government benefits families were entitled to and fight with Medicaid, insurance companies, schools and other bureaucracies.

Tina Rosenberg at the New York Times writes about the problems confronted by Zuckerman and others with sick kids being hurt by bad landlords. The story:

By early summer 2010, the temperature had already reached 100 degrees in Cincinnati. At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, doctors were urging the families of children with asthma to use air-conditioning. One mother handed a piece of paper to her doctor: The child’s room did have a window unit, and she was using it. But then the landlord responded — he apparently didn’t want to pay the electric bills. Use that air-conditioner, the letter said, and you will be evicted.

A concerned doctor might have tried to call the landlord to fight the notice. Or, she might have handed the letter over to a social worker. But Cincinnati Children’s had something better — it had lawyers. In 2008, the hospital and the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati set up a medical-legal partnership, the Cincinnati Child Health-Law Partnership or Child HeLP.

A week later, another family came in with the same letter. And the week after that.

“Our lawyers were getting the same problem referred over and over in a short period of time,” said Elaine Fink, who is the co-leader of Child HeLP. “They looked at the map ­— they were all in the same neighborhood. They looked to see who owned the buildings. In this case we hit bingo ­— the same owner.”

That was the Brooklyn-based NY Group, which held 18 buildings in Cincinnati and one in Dayton. Many tenants in those buildings had ended up at Child HeLP — to get help with mold, water damage, structural perils, rodents or bug infestations.

Child HeLP wrote to NY Group, including in its letters statements by physicians about the health impacts of its legal violations. It sued on behalf of one severely disabled boy with a tracheotomy whose health depended on air-conditioning. The repairs were done in a few weeks.

But the point was not just to help individual patients — it was to improve conditions in the buildings for all tenants. At the same time, NY Group was walking away from the buildings — Fannie Mae foreclosed on all 19 by the end of July. Legal Aid helped tenants to organize and have a voice in the foreclosure process — among other things, they wanted to make sure that the buildings remain subsidized housing.

Ultimately that pressure resulted in widespread repairs, and helped persuade Fannie Mae to sell the buildings to Community Builders, a Boston-based nonprofit that develops and operates good low-income housing (which is maintaining the subsidies). Reconstruction is about to start.

Being poor can make you sick. Where you work, the air you breathe, the state of your housing, what you eat, your levels of stress and your vulnerability to crime, injury and discrimination all affect your health. These social determinants of health lie outside the reach of doctors and nurses.

In the early 1990s, Barry Zuckerman, the chief of pediatrics at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), decided he was tired of seeing kids cycling back into the hospital again and again — asthmatic kids who never got better because of the mold in their houses, infants with breathing problems because their apartments were unheated. He’d write letters to the landlord, who ignored them, said Megan Sandel, who was an intern there at the time. Then at a cocktail party, someone listening to his complaints asked Zuckerman: What does the law say?

Zuckerman thought it was an important question. In 1993, he established the Family Advocacy Program with three lawyers to prod landlords, secure government benefits families were entitled to and fight with Medicaid, insurance companies, schools and other bureaucracies.

(Zuckerman deserves his own wing in medicine’s hall of innovation — he also co-founded Reach Out and Read, which supplies books and encourages doctors to prescribe them and family reading for kids. And he is co-founder of Health Leads, a program that trains college students to connect patients to food, heat and other basics of health.)

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