Allison Charney On COVID-19's Impact On Medical-Legal Teams

By Jack Karp | October 18, 2020, 10:06 PM EDT

Allison Charney, the new executive director of the Mount Sinai Medical-Legal Partnership, jokes that she was raised in a medical-legal partnership. Her father and brother are both doctors while she and a sister are both lawyers. 


"So it's kind of a natural progression," she said about taking on her new role at the MSMLP. "I could see both sides of it and how, working together, you can create healthier outcomes for patients."

Allison Charney is the executive director of the Mount Sinai Medical-Legal Partnership in New York.

Medical-legal partnerships like the one at Mount Sinai place attorneys on the health care teams of low-income patients in an effort to help those patients deal with the legal issues that often go hand-in-hand with their medical problems. It's an issue Charney says she's "very passionate" about — she helped found the MSMLP and served as co-chair of its board of directors while in private practice.

Late last year, she ended a 13-year career at McGuireWoods LLP and Foley & Lardner LLP to take over as the MSMLP's executive director, a role she officially stepped into in February, just weeks before New York City hospitals, including Mount Sinai, became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"I had no idea what was coming," she said. 

Charney spoke with Law360 about the Mount Sinai MLP's work, how the pandemic has affected the patients it aims to help, and what the future holds for these partnerships between health care providers and lawyers that she calls "a vital relationship."

How do MLPs help improve access to justice?

So we've found that there are social determinants of health, where there are certain things that are preventing or prohibiting somebody from either getting access to health care or living healthy. 

And what's becoming more well-known is that having access to justice, having access to legal services or a lawyer is one of those factors that hadn't really been at the top of the list of factors. You think of housing, inequality, low income, things like you can't actually get to your doctor's appointment. But no one had really thought of legal services as being one of those social determinants of health. 

The MSMLP sees our role as providing access to lawyers and legal services to patients that maybe wouldn't otherwise have access to those services. 

I would say most people actually feel very connected to their hospital or to their primary care provider, and there's a level of trust already established. And so when a social worker has connected with a patient and can spot a legal issue, or spot that they may have a legal issue, and refer them to one of our programs, there's sort of that level of trust that maybe they would never have gotten that legal service or access to service if they hadn't already had the relationship with their health care provider.

Why is it important that low-income people have access to legal help as well as medical help? 

So here's an example. There's a little girl that is coming into one of our pediatric clinics with asthma or difficulty breathing, and the health care staff has done everything they can — all the right treatments, given her all the right drugs — and then she's still coming in sick. And it turns out that she lives in an apartment that has mold. Unless that mold is abated, she's going to keep coming in sick. 

And so if you bring in a team of lawyers, or a lawyer, who can work with the landlord, try and negotiate with them to abate the mold, and if not, then go into housing court — when the courts are functioning — that is an example of how we can make her healthy. 

Without that lawyer there helping, providing that assistance, she would continue to come in sick with asthma.

What are some of the most pressing legal issues clients at the MLP face and how has the pandemic affected those issues?

The typical areas we see are housing, income inequality, access to benefits, immigration, and — we don't do criminal, we do civil, but we do see some domestic violence issues. Those are the top issues. 

And after COVID, we are seeing a lot of the access to benefits and income inequality issues that are prevalent. We expect, once the housing courts are fully functioning, that housing will become a huge issue, especially with what everyone is projecting will be record evictions. 

People are dealing with just all sorts of upsetting situations, and sometimes we can't provide a remedy, but we can at least explain what the options are. For example, when people were originally starting out to apply for unemployment, we could help with those kinds of applications. 

These are sorts of issues, it's unknown territory for pretty much everybody, and so we're trying to do the best we can to be prepared to deal with the legal issues that come up.

What is the role law firms and their attorneys can play in helping MLPs address the social determinants of health?

By partnering with law firms, we can increase the number of lawyers available to our patients. 

For example, Proskauer Rose LLP, with its client Bloomberg LP, are handling SSI/SSD applications for Mount Sinai patients pro bono, and Duane Morris LLP runs various legal clinics at the Mount Sinai Queens and Brooklyn hospitals. 

The firms we work with have a cadre of talented, smart and compassionate lawyers interested in providing pro bono services, in addition to a wealth of resources. In fostering relationships with these firms, we are also providing meaningful and important pro bono experiences for law firm attorneys. Speaking from personal experience, pro bono work can be such a rewarding and impactful part of an attorney's career.

What do you see as the future for the Mount Sinai MLP and MLPs in general?

MLPs in general I definitely see becoming more common, and I think partnerships with law firms and pro bono legal departments will increase, I hope. 

At least for us, I hope to expand our targeted programs and to get into other departments in the hospital where maybe patients can benefit from legal services. And I hope also with technology and data that we can use that somehow to increase our ability to help as many patients as possible. 

I would also love to use technology to track cases more effectively to look for patterns of a larger issue. I provided an example of the young patient who comes to Mount Sinai with asthma living in a mold-infested apartment. Perhaps there are other patients living in the same apartment building experiencing the same symptoms, and there may be ways to harness the power of technology to connect the dots.

I see this sort of just being the beginning. Although MLPs have been around for a long time, I really do see that we're on the verge of something really great. And perhaps COVID has pushed us in that direction of realizing that our health is tied to so many social issues that if we can help with a housing issue or an immigration issue or something like that, we can get people to remain healthy and have healthier outcomes.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.


--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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