UC Hastings students are doing more for veterans than just tying a ribbon round that old oak tree. They are making a positive difference in the lives of San Francisco’s senior veterans by providing free legal services through the Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors- Veterans Project clinic.
The Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors (MLPS) was created and developed by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)/ UC Hastings Consortium on Law, Science & Health Policy, a partnership between UCSF Medical Center and UC Hastings College of the Law. It is a law clinic where students work with older adults to provide free wrap-around legal services in areas including advance planning for healthcare, advance planning for finances, simple wills, public benefits, and housing advocacy. The law clinic has expanded its services to include senior veterans (MLPS-V) at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA) with support from PG&E and Latham & Watkins LLP through an Equal Justice Works Fellowship.
San Francisco is home to over 13,000 senior veterans, a population that is particularly susceptible to mental, physical, and cognitive disability which make it difficult for them to meet basic needs and stay safely in their homes and community. The need for legal assistance to address these concerns for veterans becomes increasingly urgent in San Francisco, where there has been an astronomical rise in living costs and a displacement of middle and low-income individuals from the housing market.
When a physician at the VA recognizes that a patient is having a legal need, they will be referred directly to the MLPS-V for support. UC Hastings alumnus Sara Huffman ’14, the Equal Justice Works Fellow who supervises the program, is at the VA every Monday while her veteran clients are visiting their primary care physicians. She converts an exam room into her temporary law office where her clients have easy access to legal services. “I make appointments with clients ahead of time, so they can conveniently meet with me before or after their doctor’s visit. If a patient needs legal assistance, they only have to walk down the hall to my office.”
The first appointment is something the MLPS-V and Sara refer to as a “legal checkup.” “When we initially meet with a client, we do a legal checkup where we ask for a whole host of questions to find out more about client personally and the issues they may have. We get the whole picture so we can help each client moving forward. We also hear an old war story or two!”
“It’s through the legal checkup that we identify what kind of comprehensive advance care and incapacity planning the patients need; figure out how we can advocate for them to receive more income, in-home care, and health benefits; and determine what other legal issues we can tackle to reduce their stress,” says MLPS Legal Director and Professor Yvonne Troya. “Most low-income geriatric patients don’t realize that many of the issues they’re facing are actually legal needs.”
After a client’s legal issues are identified, the MLPS-V can provide a range of legal assistance with a focus on stabilizing the client’s situation and catching future problems upstream. “We see clients who need help with simple estate planning, such as an advance health care directive, durable power of attorney for finances, or a simple will,” says Sara. “We focus on preventive and cost-saving efforts that can help reduce a client’s present stress by protecting against the risk of being taken advantage of in the future.”
Since its inception in 2015, the MLPS-V has branched out to provide services to clients living at the on-site VA Community Living Center (CLC) and has enabled UC Hastings students to participate in home visits for clients with mobility issues or who are home bound.
“Last semester, I was the only one working with veteran clients, but the program has expanded to enable students to work with and support veteran clients. Now, all eight students in the clinic have at least one veteran client case.”
With this new expansion and help from UC Hastings students, the MLPS-V has been able to provide legal services to around 70 veterans or spouses of veterans in the last year.
The services provided for are free, but Sara can attest that everyone working for the MLPS-V gets plenty back in return. “We had a disabled veteran client who on the verge of being evicted from the home he lived in for over 50 years. His spouse had recently passed away and with his reduced income, he didn’t have enough money to pay both his rent and other expenses like food and electricity. So, we negotiated with his landlord to give him a little more time and we applied for VA benefits for him. Turns out he was eligible for higher VA benefits, which doubled his income, and he was able to stay in his home. When he received that approval letter from the VA, he called me several times just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.”