A number of patients with chronic diseases and advanced age at the Lakeside Senior Medical Center, an outpatient clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, have never filled out power-of-attorney documents or appointed someone to make health care decisions if they are unable to.
Doctors frequently suspect their patients may qualify for public benefits like food stamps or MediCal, the state’s version of Medicaid. Their diagnosis: they need lawyers. However, it’s easier said than done to try an get frail, low-income seniors to consult an elder law attorney. For example, how will they be transported to a legal aid office? Will their elderly patients even make an appointment? And remember to go?
At Lakeside, Sarah Hooper, who teaches at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, believes there is a simpler solution.
“The physicians do the initial screenings, hear what their patients’ problems are, take the history — and they essentially write a prescription: ‘Go down the hall and see my friends at U.C. Hastings for help with this housing issue,’ ” she said.
Every semester eight Hastings Law students are required to spend 12 to 15 hours a week at the clinic, the Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors. Supervise by both the law school and the U.C.S.F. faculty, the clinic makes the needed reality of getting legal help more tangible.
Since the partnership’s creation in September, her second- and third-year students have worked with close to 40 elderly clients.
“They don’t trust lawyers,” Ms. Troya said, a bit ruefully. “But they really trust their doctors.”
One client who was eligible for S.S.I., Social Security disability payments, was receiving $600 a month when in California you can get $866.
“She’d been just scraping by, living with relatives who are also very low-income,” Ms. Troya said.
After discovering this Hastings students documented her expenses and the error she had made in reporting them, accompanied her to the local Social Security office and woman’s monthly benefit rose by a third.
“Such a practical difference for this person,” Ms. Troya said.
Close to 100 medical-legal partnerships are currently functioning at health care institutions and universities around the country. But the majority of those partnerships only work with children. The U.C.S.F.-Hastings clinic is one of a handful specializing in the elderly, along with programs at the University of Miami, Wake Forest University and the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
(Related: How to Protect an Elderly Mother’s Assets)
You would think there would be more. In fact, Ms. Troya said she thought there soon would be.
“It’s a complicated area of law, with many overlapping issues — psychology, health care, family relationships,” Ms. Troya said. “It’s important for young lawyers to become knowledgeable about it. And practitioners tell us it’s a very rewarding field.”