2,000 Clients and $3 Million in Benefits: 10 Years of the Health Rights Clinic

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Health Rights Clinic students with Ariel Gonzalez

In 2005 when Miami Law’s Health & Elder Law Clinic opened its doors, their first client was a frail and elderly African-American woman stricken with AIDS. She was already receiving all the entitled public benefits but was troubled by an AIDS exclusion in an insurance policy that she had bought post-diagnosis to cover her funeral and burial expenses.

Hers was not a case of disability, permanency planning or heath care surrogates -- the kind of cases the students had prepared for -- but Clinic Director JoNel Newman knew the woman would have little chance of finding other representation, and the lawyers-to-be had no other cases on which to work. They took her case.

In the decade since -- and 200 students, 2,000 grateful clients and $3 million in recovered benefits later-- the now-named Health Rights Clinic continues to fight on behalf of the underserved and disenfranchised: young and old, veterans and undocumented immigrants.

Medical-Legal Partnership

Having grown out of a Medical-Legal Partnership with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryan White-funded outpatient clinics, today, the clinic's reach extends far beyond.  Miami Law's interns regularly meet with clients at the UM medical school's pediatric mobile clinic and at Jefferson Reaves Sr. Health Center in Overtown. They also assist homeless and at-risk veterans served by Operation Sacred Trust, and the clinic even picks up cases as far away as Immokalee, Florida.

Just in the past few months, the clinic's interns and supervising attorneys have sued the Social Security Administration over the longest waits for benefits in the country and interceded successfully on behalf of a 20-year-old brain cancer patient denied government disability status.

“The clinic’s approach to legal services and education is to recreate the conditions of real-world practice,” said Newman, who has been there from the start. “We challenge students with demanding, high volume cases and policy work. We create a lifeline and move people from homelessness to being able to both support themselves and get medical care all the time.”

Carlos Nuñez with his mother Carmen

The Haiti Earthquake

In January 2010, an earthquake in Haiti killed more than 100,000 people and impacted an estimated 3 million others left homeless and jobless. In the aftermath, the United States government responded by granting temporary status to Haitian refugees who were eligible for deportation and repatriation. The clinic began boot camp-style training so law students could work with Haitian immigrants to file for Temporary Protected Status.

Before the end of that January, 65 TPS applications had been successfully submitted to the U.S. government. Flush with victory, the clinic launched a historic undertaking: the Alternative Spring Break TPS Project. Ultimately over 130 law students participated, including 52 from other law schools across the country, and more than 150 TPS applications were processed and submitted. As a result, the clinic was awarded the Clinical Legal Education Association’s "Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project" award.

"As a result of my clinic experience, I was selected for the Presidential Management Fellowship at the State Department upon graduation,” said Frederick Hawkins, JD ‘11. “I was able to apply the skills I learned at the clinic to my position working in immigration policy both domestically and overseas. Overall, I owe a tremendous amount of my success to the foundation the clinic has provided me with, which was underscored by a commitment to public service.
 
“On a personal note, the clinic has added significance for me because I met my wife through the Haiti TPS project!" he said.

Medicaid for Undocumented Farmworker

In 2014, an undocumented farmworker named Ariel Gonzalez, who was without a primary care physician or health insurance, was dying from kidney failure. The hospital treating him was forcing him into emergency care each time he became critical instead of getting him into monitored dialysis because the billing was more straight forward.

Four students – Kanchi Doshi, Jenna Feldman, Rebecca Greenfield, and Nicole-Suzette Velazquez, all JD’15 – spent the next 20 days learning to navigate the system. They had to educate health care administrators on emergency Medicaid benefits, and be on the phone day and night with the farmworker explaining forms and procedures in Spanish. The students did not stop until the farmworker was enrolled in thrice-weekly dialysis and had secured appropriate housing.

Feldman, the then 24-year-old Baltimore native who took on the Florida Department of Children and Families, Lawnwood Hospital, and the kidney clinic said, “After participating in the Clinic, I feel much better prepared for a career in health care law and I look forward to working in the field as a Summer Associate at DLA Piper this summer.” After graduation, Feldman secured a position at DLA Piper.

Securing Benefits for Veterans

A 55-year-old bus driver with chronic lymphocytic leukemia was denied Social Security disability payments in 2013, while undergoing a second round of chemotherapy. The Veteran's Administration begrudged him Veteran Disability Compensation even though his condition was linked to chemical exposure while serving his country.

The denials did not sit well with Noel Pace, JD ’15, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, and a then-Equal Justice Works Americorps J.D. Legal Corps Fellow in the clinic. Pace, and Ryan Foley, J.D.’13, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow, were able to secure monthly disability payments as well as $10,000 in back payments from the Social Security Administration.
Ryan Foley, a pro bono attorney for the clinic, says the most common reason veterans are denied is that they have not been able to provide enough evidence to support their claims.

“That is why lawyers are so important to getting veterans the benefits they deserve,” said Foley.

"It's really too bad that we have so many veterans in South Florida that are homeless or that have significant chronic health problems," said Pace.

Advocacy Beyond Client Representation

Besides the much needed and noble work that the clinic does year in and year out, they have changed the face of medical care in remarkable ways. They have developed handbooks for health care administrators to use to navigate applying for emergency Medicaid; they devised a simple one-page diagnoses sheet for physicians that conform to Social Security disability payment requests, and they present seminars to doctors, nurses, and social workers on how to best access legal assistance on behalf of their patients.

“My clinic experience provided me with practical legal skills that offered me a competitive edge in applying for jobs, said Matt Eandi, J.D. ‘11. “It also taught me the importance of using my skills as an attorney to benefit pro bono causes that I have continuously served throughout my career.”

From humble beginnings and grand intentions, the Health Rights Clinic has influenced the lives of thousands of marginalized residents in the Miami-Dade community and far beyond. And each case matters, not just for the person on whose behalf the clinic speaks, but to the students who pass through their doors.

“We push the student attorneys to fight to get their individual clients’ cases approved in an expedited manner,” said Melissa Swain, Associate Director, Health Rights Clinic and Lecturer in Law. ”We then encourage the students to look at the patterns of injustice causing harm to this community and develop policy advocacy projects to institute change on a larger scale.”

Director Newman agrees, “It’s wonderful to see [interns] transition from student to lawyer while, quite literally sometimes, saving clients’ lives.”