Medicine law concept. Gavel and stethoscope on book close up

Addressing Racism through Medical-Legal Partnerships

By Medha D. Makhlouf

Numerous studies have documented that racism is a social determinant of health (SDoH) that negatively impacts Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As such, racism is one of “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age” that are “mostly responsible for unfair and avoidable differences in health statuses.”

The U.S. health care system was not designed to respond to SDoH, much less to address racial health disparities. In fact, U.S. health care institutions have racist legacies that continue to influence the way they operate today. When health care providers fail to confront racism within and outside their walls, they perpetuate the racial health disparities that have plagued our nation since before its founding.

Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) is a model of collaboration and joint advocacy between lawyers and health care providers who seek to improve social conditions that affect health and well-being. MLPs aim to address SDoH on three levels: direct representation in civil legal matters, institutional change, and systemic advocacy. They typically employ legal interventions to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, such as nutritious food, health care, income, safe and stable housing, and uninterrupted energy and water utilities. Improving access to such resources is an important way of engaging with the work of health equity.

While some MLPs incorporate a racial justice lens in their work, many do not. MLPs are generally more oriented toward addressing the effects of racism as a SDoH, rather than as the cause of poor health. But considering the cross-cutting nature of racism as a SDoH, MLPs can and should address it directly. As Director of the MLP Clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law, whose faculty has resolved to incorporate discussions of racism and inequality in the curriculum, I have begun researching Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a framework to understand how MLPs can build on their core activities to further address racism as a SDoH and make explicit the connections between racism and poor health. This post describes how MLPs can address racism as a SDoH in at least four ways that align with the goals of CRT.

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Man holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC 6/6/2020.

How Social Movements Shape the Law to Address Health Disparities

By Aziza Ahmed

We are facing a health crisis in America. In thinking through the causes of health disparities, a now well-developed body of public health law scholarship focuses in on the central issue of law as a social determinant of health. This scholarship examines the issue of how legal rules can determine health outcomes. Property laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against minorities, for example, often result in poor Black communities living in neighborhoods in which they may be more exposed to pollutants, resulting in higher rates of breast cancer or asthma. Or, immigration practices, including ongoing profiling at the border, as well as detention practices, may have mental and physical health impacts.

What is missing from legal scholarship on the social determinants of health is an account of how communities respond to change the legal environments that have the effect of producing poor health outcomes. In other words, how do communities demand a better legal system with regard to health inequality? Here, we must turn to social movements who often drive our national conversation on access to health care by doing the hard work of identifying, naming, and drawing attention to the complexity of issues that people face.

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Large pile of amber prescription pill bottles

A Look at Florida’s Decade-Long Effort to Curb the Opioid Epidemic

By Jessica Lam and Megan Bershefsky

Over the years, Florida, an early hotspot in the opioid epidemic, has implemented a series of legal and regulatory responses that have been met with both success and continued challenges.

Since 2016 — about 25 years into an opioid crisis that began in the 1990s — more than half of the country has passed laws to limit either the number of days or the amount of opioids that can be prescribed. Florida is on the leading edge of both the epidemic and efforts to use law to combat its effects, passing its first laws before many other states.

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Syringe and vials of vaccine.

Racial Inclusivity in COVID-19 Vaccine Trials

By Colleen Campbell

Recent calls for racial inclusivity in vaccine trials, which often rely on genetic rationales while emphasizing medical distrust among African Americans, unfortunately lack an equally robust critique of medical racism and the ongoing reasons for this distrust.

Even though race lacks genetic meaning, the COVID-19 discourse is rife with biological notions of race. Because of [g]enetics related to racial differences” African Americans must be involved in clinical trials, said Dr. Larry Graham in an NBC News article. He continued: “We must be sure it works in Black folks.” For this reason, companies like biotech firm Moderna are enlisting Black religious leaders to heavily recruit African American participants. They are also exploiting networks previously used for HIV clinical trials.

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Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Film negative by photographer Warren K. Leffler, 1963. From the U.S. News & World Report Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Photograph shows a procession of African Americans carrying signs for equal rights, integrated schools, decent housing, and an end to bias. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003654393/

Structural Racism: The Root Cause of the Social Determinants of Health

By Ruqaiijah Yearby, J.D., M.P.H.

In 1906, W.E.B. DuBois noted that social conditions, not genetics, impacted the health of Blacks, causing racial disparities in mortality rates. In 2010, the federal government formally recognized that social conditions, specifically the social determinants of health (SDOH), were responsible for racial health disparities.

Racial health disparities, estimated to cost the United States $175 billion in lost life years and $135 billion per year in excess health care costs and untapped productivity, persist because of the failure to address their root cause: structural racism.

Structural racism describes the way our systems are structured to produce racial inequalities between whites and racial and ethnic minorities in the SDOH, leading to racial health disparities.

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Valuing the vaccine still.

Valuing the Vaccine: Video Preview with Lisa Ouellette

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts.

The workshop is led by Professor I. Glenn Cohen, and presenters come from a wide range of disciplines and departments.

In this video, Lisa Ouellette gives a preview of her paper “Valuing the Vaccine,” co-authored by Daniel J. Hemel, which they will present at the Health Law Policy workshop on September 21, 2020. Watch the full video below:

Austin, Tx/USA - May 23, 2020: Family members of prisoners held in the state prison system demonstrate at the Governor's Mansion for their release on parole due to the danger of Covid-19 in prisons.

Jails and COVID-19: An Overlooked Public Health Crisis in Philadelphia

By Katherine Zuk

Since the start of the pandemic, jails and prisons have continuously struggled to stop the spread of COVID-19 cases.

The novel coronavirus has been ravaging the U.S. since late February, with over 6 million cases and 185,092 deaths. Emerging data shows alarmingly high rates of COVID-19 in jails and prisons nationwide, including over 85% of inmates testing positive at two facilities in Ohio. As of September 3, there have been at least 180,045 cases and 928 deaths in prisons alone – and many fear these numbers are severely underreported.

Philadelphia offers an unfortunate case study.

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Santiago, Chile - Crosswalk in long-exposure.

Chile’s New Constitution, the Right to Health, and Health System Reforms

By Marco Antonio Nuñez

During these months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chile, the need to align the constitutional process with long-postponed structural reforms to the health system has become evident among public health experts.

Capitalizing on this moment might avoid the possibility of a constitutional right to health becoming a dead letter or being reduced only to the prosecution of particular cases, postponing again the aspirations of the majority of Chileans.

Although the Chilean Constitution promulgated under the dictatorship in 1980 and subsequently reformed in several of its chapters recognizes “The right to the protection of health,” it has been tainted by authoritarianism from its origin, and promotes a subsidiary role of the state in health.

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gavel and stethoscope on white background

The Right to Health in the Upcoming Constitutional Debate in Chile

By Veronica Vargas

At this unprecedented COVID moment, health has been revealed as one of our most precious possessions and protecting it has become imperative. The right to health was articulated by the WHO in the Declaration of Alma-Ata of 1978. The upcoming constitutional debate in Chile is an opportunity to re-examine this concept.

The Chilean constitution specifies the right to “free and egalitarian access” to health care. Simultaneously, the constitution guarantees that “each person has the right to choose the health system they wish to join, either public or private.”

These provisions have championed a prospering private health sector, with corporate clinics and a private insurance system that represents almost half of total health spending.

However, this private sector serves less than 20 percent of the population. Nearly 80 percent of the population utilizes public sector insurance. Although the public sector has been expanding its coverage of health services, and health indicators for those with public insurance have been improving, the public sector is chronically underfunded. Public sector health care spending represents only 4% of the GDP.

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