Low-income senior veterans can now obtain legal assistance down the hall from their medical appointments.
Like the flagship Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors (MLPS) program, the new senior veterans initiative aims to improve the health and overall well-being of a vulnerable and underserved population by closely integrating health care and legal services.
“Elderly folks have a hard time accessing legal services for different reasons, such as mobility issues or lack of awareness that they even have legal issues. Our coordinated approach with the medical providers at the hospital assists in breaking down a lot of the barriers these people face in getting help,” explained Sara Huffman ’14, who recently returned to UC Hastings to lead the new initiative through a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship sponsored by PG&E and Latham & Watkins LLP.
Huffman currently partners with the geriatric and palliative care clinics at the hospital, spending one day a week on-site to meet with clients and educate health care providers. Training is an essential component of her work, since the medical community at the hospital acts as the conduit from the veterans to Huffman. With proper coaching, hospital staff are better able to identify potential and existing legal issues when they talk to their patients.
Demand for Huffman’s assistance is high. She has counseled clients on many different matters so far and has helped a homebound veteran avoid eviction through collaboration with his doctor. Other common issues these veterans face involve estate planning and public benefits.
“My clients don’t realize that they qualify for certain benefits or that they’re not receiving what they should be receiving. Being able to obtain the support they’re eligible for gives them more financial security, and better access to essentials like health care, food and people who can come to their homes to assist them,” said Huffman, who has spent a good deal of time diving into the complexities of VA benefits in order to better serve her new client base.
Although the initiative is still in its infancy, other medical units at the VA hospital have expressed interest in collaborating with the MLPS team.
“We have already begun receiving a steady stream of referrals, and we have been approached by non-geriatric providers who want us to expand to their departments,” said Professor Yvonne Troya, who is the legal director of the MLPS.
In addition, Huffman and Troya plan to bring on a UC Hastings student to assist with the program in January, which will mark the first step in training “a new generation of law students to be vigorous advocates for this vulnerable population while learning the inter-professional and other lawyering skills that will prepare them for their future practice,” remarked Troya.
Huffman’s long-term goal is to make the initiative self-sustaining so that, before her two-year tenure ends, it has become an integral part of the health care providers’ work with their patients. “I love working with the senior veterans. It feels great to help reduce their stress and improve their situations,” enthused Huffman.
For more about the genesis of the MLPS veterans project and Huffman’s selection as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, click here.