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updated: 10/2/2015 9:39 AM

Doctor-law student partnership to help poor is thriving in Aurora

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  • Video: Health advocacy clinic

  • Colleen Boraca, right, director of the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, talks about how she and Michael Cobb, executive director of Hesed House, work in tandem to make sure the poor have access to health care and legal help in a unique partnership between doctors and lawyers.

      Colleen Boraca, right, director of the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, talks about how she and Michael Cobb, executive director of Hesed House, work in tandem to make sure the poor have access to health care and legal help in a unique partnership between doctors and lawyers.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • The collaboration helped Michael Ferrell of Aurora get his Social Security benefits back.

      The collaboration helped Michael Ferrell of Aurora get his Social Security benefits back.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Colleen Boraca supervises the NIU law students who tackle the real-life legal problems of the poor and the homeless.

      Colleen Boraca supervises the NIU law students who tackle the real-life legal problems of the poor and the homeless.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

With a bum knee and a bad back, Michael Ferrell can't work. He also got into drugs and alcohol, lost his home and ended up at an Aurora homeless shelter.

The 60-year-old Ferrell was denied Social Security disability benefits two years ago and told to appeal locally because the government thought he had other income sources.

But that all changed after he was referred to the Northern Illinois University Health Advocacy Clinic, a rare partnership between doctors and lawyers launched in Aurora a year ago.

In it, doctors treat patients' medical needs but also ask about other socio-economic issues that might require a lawyer's help. If so, the patient is referred to an attorney who has NIU law students work on the case.

Not only was Ferrell able to get access to proper medicine, but clinic Supervising Attorney Colleen Boraca and her NIU students succeeded in crafting a legal argument to bypass the lengthy Social Security appeal process. Ferrell recovered his disability benefits -- retroactive to September 2013.

So now, instead of wondering where his next meal will come from, Ferrell is looking for a place to live on his own again.

"I probably would have been dead because I had no place to go, no food, no medicine," he said. "I just thank God for each and every one of (the lawyers). I wouldn't have made it without them. This is the place to come. You get a two-way win here. You don't have to pay the lawyer (either)."

'Makes total sense'

The Aurora clinic is NIU's fourth in Illinois and the only medical-legal partnership in the state connected to a homeless shelter, the Hesed House Community Resource Center, 680 S. River St., across the street from the shelter.

At the clinic, people staying at Hesed House are referred to Aunt Martha's Health Center, where doctors not only treat the patient but ask about other issues.

"We're training the doctors to spot the legal issues and they refer the cases to us," Boraca said. "Now it's blossomed into a movement. It makes total sense. It's a really innovative way to address social and economic issues. The long-term goal of this is to improve the long-term health of the community."

The first such medical-legal partnership started in Boston in the 1990s, according to Boraca and mlpboston.org.

Dr. Barry Zuckerman grew frustrated when his young asthma patients failed to improve despite medication and treatment; he eventually learned their apartment building had a mold problem.

Zuckerman hired a part-time attorney to handle the situation and other cases involving the housing and safety of patients. During the next 12 years, the partnership continued and expanded into the Boston Medical Center and three others by 2005. It now serves as a model for the rest of the nation.

Ferrell's case is one of more than 60 that have been opened by the clinic and one of the most successful so far.

Doctors are trained to ask patients if they have applied for or have been denied benefits, such as Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid. Doctors also ask patients if they have decided who should make medical decisions for them if they become incapable of making their own choices.

"My initial thought was, 'Wow, doctors and lawyers partnering? That's not the way it normally happens.' This is two key components of our society coming together," Hesed House Executive Director Michael Cobb said.

Before the clinic opened, Cobb said it could take three to four weeks for new Hesed House clients just to get a doctor's appointment, and then they still had to worry about transportation. Now, Hesed House clients simply walk across the street.

"It's like a one-stop shop, and that makes it fairly unique," Cobb said, noting that once Hesed House clients move to permanent housing, they can still go to the clinic. "That's huge for them because they have already developed those relationships. They know the doctor and nurse."

Cobb said these lasting relationships result in better overall health and also help cut down on unnecessary emergency room visits, which is where the poor tend to go when sick.

Having an impact

Anita Maddali, NIU Director of Clinics and associate professor of law, persuaded the faculty two years ago to pursue the medical-legal partnership.

"Students are working with other professionals other than just lawyers," Maddali said. "Exposing students to communities that do need the services of an attorney and understanding what that looks like, the impact you can have on a client's life is pretty significant. It's more of an issue of understanding what the model is about. It's not the traditional model."

Maddali said her biggest concern going in was how students and medical staffers would work together. But not only have doctors have been enthusiastic and engaged when referring patients, but "it went from a collaboration in theory to collaboration in practice pretty quickly."

And having a lawyer in your corner is no small thing.

"Sometimes, when you have a professional advocating on your behalf, it can keep the process going in your favor, or it might just be a lawyer presenting something in the way it's supposed to be presented," Maddali said, noting that the system is not always "user-friendly."

Cobb, of Hesed House, agreed that collaboration has been key to the partnership's success so far.

"It's really that understanding that we don't have to do everything perfect," he said. "Just do what you do well and work with others."

Inspiring new lawyers

The clinic has done more than help people like Ferrell cut through the red tape to get the disability benefits he deserved.

NIU law school students essentially practice law under Boraca, the clinic's supervising attorney.

"It's an inspiring place to work," she said. "It's an opportunity not only to teach the next generation of attorneys but also to do the right thing."

That message has resonated with students such as Laura Gaden, an NIU student from Naperville.

"This is the first experience I have had where I actually feel like a lawyer," she said. "It's really great to take on a client as a student attorney."

Amanda Beveroth, a student from Sterling, said working at the clinic was a little overwhelming at first.

"Colleen is a great leader, giving us a lot of support," she said. "It's really exciting to step into the role of what it's like to be a lawyer. Once you start at the clinic, you're doing practical skills from Day 1. Here you're dealing with real people, real clients and real issues. It's a real improvement on a person's life."

The partnership also might inspire a new generation of attorneys committed to social justice. Kelli Schmidt, an Aurora native and former Hesed House volunteer, says the clinic had taught her how to interview a client and assemble a case.

"It really is setting me apart from the other law students," Schmidt said. "I love the public-interest sector. This is where a grew up and this is where I want to stay."

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