A Legal First Aid

Posted On November 5, 2009 by Leah Seupersad
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With a lawyer stationed on the fourth floor of Children’s at Hughes Spalding hospital, Dr. Robert Pettignano doesn’t have to go far to help a child whose health care depends on solving legal problems.


Rebecca Propst has been working at the hospital since February as a health disparities fellow for Georgia State University’s Health Law Partnership (HeLP). With a grant of nearly $100,000 from the Georgia Department of Community Health’s Georgia Health Equity Initiative, HeLP hired Propst to work full-time at Hughes Spalding where she provides legal assistance to low-income and minority patients and families.


“Rebecca has been an invaluable addition. Since she has been here we have increased the number of cases that we have been able to handle,” said Pettignano, director of medical affairs at Hughes Spalding. “This has truly been an eye opening experience for me. Most physicians have a slanted view of what lawyers do. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work with Rebecca who breaks the mold of what I ever thought a lawyer was.”


Propst, an alumna of Georgia State’s College of Law, has been a registered neutral and mediator in Georgia since 2006, and has successfully mediated hundreds of housing disputes in Fulton County Landlord/Tenant Court. During law school, Propst served as a law clerk at the global humanitarian aid and development organization CARE USA, where she further developed her interest in legal empowerment of the poor.


As a fellow, Propst represents clients in finding resolutions to a variety of civil law problems, such as housing, income stability, food security, family stability, freedom from violence, and access to appropriate educational resources. For example, Propst describes a case where she must negotiate with a landlord who won’t repair mold in an apartment, which is triggering a child’s asthma.


“How can we get the landlord to repair or move this person to a new apartment? How do we make sure this person maintains their voucher with the housing authority so they won’t lose their subsidy,” Propst said. “Sometimes if you just talk to the landlord and say this is the situation and the child has asthma, you would be surprised at how many people when spoken to and told about the situation are like ‘oh yes of course.’”

HeLP, which operates at all three of the Children’s campuses, is working on research about the degree public health legal services can reduce the social and economic factors that can adversely affect a child’s health. At Hughes Spalding Propst is working with the highest Medicaid and uninsured population of the Children’s campuses, according to Pettignano.


“Behind every client is a story of poverty and its effects and the idea that doctors, lawyers and social workers can collaborate in a way that is truly interdisciplinary in its operation to address the whole child is really an important part that goes on here,” Propst said.


Both Pettignano and Propst said they were amazed at the interconnectedness of the health and legal problems families face at Hughes Spalding. During the fellowship, Propst will work with Pettignano to coordinate educational programs about health disparities among low-income and minority children for health care professionals at the hospital.


“There’s an interconnectedness of all the issues that we take fore granted in our own lives and we don’t see how one little thread coming undone can completely unravel a family’s life,” Propst said. “All of those things on top of just having a difficult life can cause a tremendous amount of strain on a family.”

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