MHW: N.J. Community MH Agency Partners with Legal Group

N.J. Agency Partners with Legal Group to Help SPMI patients

Mental Health Weekly March 11, 2019

Noting that medical-legal partnerships are being recognized and gaining traction as an effective and relatively low-cost intervention to improve health outcomes, a New Jersey–based mental health organization and a public interest law agency have partnered to assist patients with a serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI) in need of legal assistance before they reach a crisis point.

The medical-legal partnership between the Montclair-based Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Inc. and the Community Health Law Project (CHLP) commenced in January and was funded with a $150,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

The goal of the project is to address the social determinants of health of vulnerable individuals experiencing SPMI, and to collect data and outcomes to better advocate for expanded funding for medical-legal partnerships with mental health and addiction agencies, officials stated.

We noticed that legal issues cause significant stressors for our population, “Robert N. Davison, M.A., LPC, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Inc., told MHW. The population with SPMI may be dealing with threats of evictions, potential loss of benefits or unresolved issues with child support and the like, he said. “

We’re embedding an attorney in our agency who will work with the homelessness case management program and an integrated case management services program, “said Davison. The attorney will work one day a week in the office and spend time during the week in the field working with a clinician to visit patients in their community. These partnerships appear to reflect a new trend, added Davison.

The embedded attorney and advocate can proactively intervene before legal problems reach a crisis point, help health care staff recognize potential health-harming legal issues, navigate system and policy barriers to health, and break the cycle of treating patient-consumers only to have them come right back because their underlying barriers to health are not being addressed, officials stated.

Early Intervention

This new concept of behavioral health organizations partnering with medical-legal partners represents a joint effort to address clients ‘problems as early as possible rather than the traditional referral to a legal entity, said Hal Garwin, Esq., executive director of the Community Health Law Project.

This type of effort is gaining more traction around the country and doing well in New Jersey, said Garwin. It will still take some time to de termine how much better it is embedding attorneys than doing it the traditional way by referrals,

he noted.

Clients with mental health or substance use disorders may find that they’ve received an eviction notice or been denied Social Security disability and be referred to a legal services provider, Garwin said. “That can be a burden on the client to call that legal services provider and make an appointment,” he said.

Garwin added, “Often the client may not get there because of their disability or they have already received a judgment [related to the eviction]. They could have been denied Social Security and missed the time needed to appeal it.”

Those are issues the CHLP will hopefully help patients with a serious and persistent mental health issue avoid, he said.

In these types of partnerships, whether or not an attorney will remain in an office for a full day depends on the program, funding and the opportunity, he said. “It varies in different places,” said Garwin. “An attorney may go out with a case manager to see clients where they are. It’s fluid.”

Other health care organizations the CHLP has partnered with include the Center for Family Services, an addiction treatment center in South Jersey and a local HIV program, Garwin noted. “We’re looking to partner with FQHC [federally qualified health center] organizations to provide similar types of services,”Garwin said.