Jason Biafore, an attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, in front of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.
Jason Biafore, an attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, in front of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

ALBANY – A partnership between the New York Legal Assistance Group and New York City’s Health and Hospitals Corp. has expanded to three additional hospitals.

That means that all 11 of the city’s public hospitals now have legal clinics staffed for at least a half day once a week.

Legal Assistance attorneys are available at the hospitals to address a variety of legal needs, whether or not they are related to what has brought people to the hospitals.

“It is a win for the hospital,” said Randye Retkin, the one-time director of legal services for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who directs the Legal Assistance program. “It is a win for the patients. It is a win for the health care professionals and it is a win for our attorneys, who get great clinical experience working with clients and working with health care professionals as part of a team.”

Legal Assistance Group began providing legal services to Health and Hospitals Corp. patients in 2002 at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. The group based its program on a successful model developed by the Medical-Legal Partnership of Boston.

The program, called LegalHealth, grew to become a presence in eight hospitals and at more than a dozen other health centers under a $350,000-a-year contract with the corporation.

Earlier this year, Legal Assistance inaugurated LegalHealth clinics at Metropolitan Hospital Center in Manhattan, Queens Hospital and Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn.

Legal Assistance and Health and Hospitals Corp. have signed a five-year agreement that increases the latter’s annual payment to $825,000.

Health and Hospitals Corp. senior vice president and general counsel, Salvatore Russo, said in an interview that before the expansion, LegalHealth was providing legal assistance to more than 10,000 Health and Hospitals Corp. patients a year.

Russo said there are about 1.2 million visits to Health and Hospitals Corp. emergency rooms each year and about 220,000 admissions.

The hospitals provide LegalHealth attorneys with a desk, a telephone and a computer.

Russo said Health and Hospitals Corp. and Legal Assistance are “natural” allies. He said the $825,000 a year to the LegalHealth program is “inconsequential” to the benefits the corporation gets from the arrangement.

Russo said that hospitals have found that many times Legal Assistance can enhance their medical mission by, for instance, improving sick people’s housing and making sure they have proper food.

“They handle immigration, housing, Social Security disability, Medicare and Medicaid claims,” he said. “We have some undocumented [patients] that they are able to finesse some coverage for their conditions beyond the emergency stage. We work together.”

Twenty of Legal Assistance’s 220 attorneys are involved in the program. Some matters also are handled by pro bono attorneys.

Both Legal Assistance and Health and Hospitals Corp. said hospital staffers are trained to recognize when patients may have legal issues. Confidentiality rules prohibit the hospital from disclosing patients’ health care issues to LegalHealth attorneys or anyone else, but hospital personnel can ask patients if they would consent to be contacted by LegalHealth.

Jason Biafore, a six-year veteran LegalHealth attorney who supervises the legal clinic at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, said he typically sees six to 10 people face-to-face during his weekly visits to Lincoln.

“Virtually all of them are disadvantaged economically,” he said. “Many are immigrants. The main practice areas are housing, landlord-tenant, immigration, disability, public benefits, power of attorney, guardianship and things of that nature.”

LegalHealth does not handle bankruptcy matters.

A major part of the alliance is training staff at the healthcare facilities to recognize when patients have issues that LegalHealth can help them with, said Yisroel Schulman, Legal Assistance’s president and attorney-in-charge.

“The goal of our medical-legal partnerships is to really ingrain our services into the hospital environment to ensure that holistic services are being provided to low-income patients,” he said.

Retkin said the program is ideal for younger attorneys. “It really provides a terrific experience,” she said. “You need attorneys willing to be attorneys plus they are not afraid to do the social services work, to step outside their role and to help somebody.”

However, if a LegalHealth client raises an allegation of medical malpractice at a Health and Hospitals Corp. facility, the LegalHealth attorney may not handle it, Russo said.

“We have an agreement that they will not represent the client in that regard and they will refer the client to an appropriate bar association or not-for-profit legal provider to assist the patient to resolve those issues,” he said.

Russo said some members of the Health and Hospitals Corp.’s governing board expressed concern in the early 2000s that having the LegalHealth attorneys on site in the public hospitals would encourage the filing of medical malpractice claims, but he said those worries have “not been an issue or a problem.”