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Beth Israel partnership offers free legal support to immigrants

Teams up with Health Law Advocates on insurance access, medical debt issues

Avery Bleichfeld
Beth Israel partnership offers free legal support to immigrants
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recently announced a new partnership with Health Law Advocates and Bowdoin Street Health Center to provide pro bono legal services to immigrants. BANNER PHOTO

A new partnership between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Health Law Advocates will seek to provide free legal support to immigrants.

The program will allow providers at the medical center and at Bowdoin Street Health Center, which is affiliated with Beth Israel, to refer patients to Health Law Advocates for legal support, particularly around insurance access and medical debt.

Through the program, the groups hope to address social determinants of health, factors outside of medical care that affect the well-being of patients.

“While we’re trying to improve the health of all patients, some things are outside of our control in terms of medical interventions but there are social interventions — and, in this case, legal interventions — that we can help facilitate that will actually improve patients’ health, sometimes better than the medical interventions that we can do,” said David Sontag, senior associate general counsel and director of ethics at Beth Israel Lahey Health, the health-care system that oversees the medical center.

Jennifer Cedor, supervising attorney at Health Law Advocates, said the partnership will work to bring greater medical equity to immigrant communities in Boston.

“Our main goal is to eliminate these systemic barriers that are in place for our immigration population to reduce health disparities within the Commonwealth and to ensure that we’re providing adequate advice and representation to our immigration population,” said Cedor, who manages the partnership and will oversee monthly clinics that will be offered.

The partnership will focus on immigrants who face several barriers to accessing medical care, including challenges with language access.

To accomplish that, Cedor, who speaks Haitian Creole, said Health Law Advocates engages a team of interpreters to assist clients.

Considerations around language are nothing new in community health centers, said Samantha Taylor, executive director at Bowdoin Street Health Center.

The center has interpreters on site, most of whom specialize in Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole and Spanish. Many of the center’s staff who help with wraparound health services are also multilingual.

“It’s really the goal of many health centers to hire staff that are reflective of the community it serves,” Taylor said. “As you walk around the health center, whether you’re encountering a community health worker or an interpreter, you’re finding that our staff are able to meet the language needs of our patients.”

The partnership will work to ensure that patients have the health benefits they are entitled to, advocate for people who have been denied services due to a lack of insurance and assist uninsured and underinsured clients with medical debt.

“We want to bridge that gap,” Cedor said. “We want to ensure that everyone has access to the care that they need.”

In the longer term, the groups hope to expand and cover other legal issues, including housing, education, food security and other supplemental benefits.

“We’re hoping that this is just the first piece and that then we’ll build it out to be able to provide more legal services,” Sontag said.

The three groups are sorting through how many people they will be able to assist.

Conversations about the medical-legal partnership started at the beginning of the year, Cedor said, with official documentation signed in March. Since then, the groups have been working to train and prepare staff, making sure they’re aware of the issues that the partnership will focus on and that they’re familiar with how to navigate MassHealth.

Already, staff at Beth Israel have referred a few patients but Taylor said Bowdoin Street Health Center is now ready to start sending more patients of their own.

“We’re in a place now where we can really start sending a lot of referrals from Bowdoin and certainly [we are] looking to expand in the future with this partnership,” Taylor said.

Offering those services at Bowdoin Street will be an important piece of the project.

Though Health Law Advocates already has partnerships with four other major health care services in the Boston area, Sontag said they traditionally tend to be found at the community health centers.

“There’s a lot of focus, rightfully, on health inequities,” Sontag said. “When we look at where they exist, it’s important to go to those places first.”

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, free legal support to immigrants, Health Law Advocates