Canada Embraces Medical-Legal Partnerships

Good legal help is hard to find.  Particularly for the low-income parents of a sick child who pass countless hours in hospital waiting rooms and at their child’s bedside.  Attorney Lee Ann Chapman told The Star:

Having a sick child can bring about a domino effect.  Families sometimes let important, practical issues slide because they’re so focused on their child’s health.  Often they have no idea of their rights and have never had access to legal information.  Sometimes they are quite desperate.

Enter The Hospital For Sick Children (SickKids) and Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO), who’ve teamed up to deliver Canada’s first medical-legal partnership, modeled after a U.S. counterpart.  By collocating pro bono lawyers at the hospital, The Family Legal Health Program brings access to justice directly to the families who need it most.

Doctors, nurses, and social workers at SickKids Hospital are trained to identify low-income patients who may require legal assistance with critical issues ranging from disability benefits, taxes, education, evictions, and employment, to immigration.  “These families are so overwhelmed with a sick or terminally ill child,” explains Pro Bono Law Ontario Executive Director Lynn Burns, “that they just don’t have the wherewithal to attend to these problems.  They don’t even know there is a legal remedy available.”

“That’s the job of our lawyers,” adds PBLO attorney Chapman, “to take the burden from them.”  After only two years in operation, the SickKids/PBLO partnership has already helped more than 1,000 families to access justice.

Julia Morreale received a heart transplant when she was just 8 months old.  After she experienced organ rejection episodes and a rare post-transplant complication, Julia’s doctors at SickKids recommended that she be treated in the U.S., where CTL (Cytotoxic T Lymphocytes or “killer T-cell”) therapy is available.  According to her doctors at SickKids, CTL is Julia’s only hope of survival.  Unfortunately, Ontario’s public health insurance plan (OHIP) deems CTL treatment “experimental” and has consequently declined to cover Julia’s costs.  Each three-week cycle of CTL therapy costs between $60,000 and $80,000 — a price that Julia’s parents, who have three young children, simply cannot afford.

Fortunately, PBLO onsite “triage lawyer” Lee Ann Chapman connected Julia’s family with pro bono attorney Duncan Embury of Torkin Manes, who will argue Julia’s OHIP appeal before the Review Board.  The fifty hours that Chapman has already logged on Julia’s case would have cost the Morreale family $30,000.  “I can’t think of a cause . . . more worthy of our time as lawyers,” said Embury.  SickKids Director of Social Work and Child Life Dr. Ted McNeill couldn’t agree more: “Being able to offer onsite legal guidance to families who might not otherwise have access to lawyers will play a significant role in improving the health and well-being of these children and their families.”

The PBEye is pleased to report that PBLO aims to establish similar programs at Ontario’s three other children’s hospitals.

Drop us a comment and tell us about your pro bono medical-legal partnership!