How Can Legal Aid Support Recovery?

orange background with text reading "September is Recovery month!"

COVID-19 has caused immense tragedy and torn apart millions of families and communities. However, even before the coronavirus, many Americans suffered from a different disease: opioid addiction. Since 1999, about half a million people have died of opioid-related overdoses. Unfortunately, our own community is not exempt from this epidemic. In 2019, nearly one thousand people in Philadelphia died of opioid overdoses. The availability of fentanyl escalated the problem to a horrific degree. Fentanyl is a synthetic drug that is 80 times more powerful than heroin. Currently, fentanyl is a factor in more than half of all overdose deaths. Regardless of the drug, addiction disrupts all areas of life. A person’s housing situation, their relationships with their family, and their career all have the potential to be impacted by addiction.      

Unfortunately, the pandemic has made an already alarming situation worse. From January 2020 to January 2021, drug overdose deaths have increased by 17.4% in the state of Pennsylvania. The exact cause of this increase remains undetermined. However, scholars have speculated about some possibilities. For example, the pandemic has prevented some people from accessing physical therapy. This in turn may cause them to turn to prescription drugs that mimic opioids. A lack of bystander intervention may be another factor. The sooner a person sees someone who may be experiencing an overdose, the quicker they can call emergency services. But social distancing may limit the amount of people who could make such a life-saving call. Finally, the pandemic has shut down traditional venues for communal interaction (such as concerts, restaurants, and religious services). As a result, social isolation has increased. Regardless of the cause, the facts are clear: the pandemic has made an already disturbing situation worse. 

Luckily, the solution to this problem is clear. Access to treatment—especially Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)—can save lives. However, effective treatment requires treating the whole person. This includes addressing their social and economic needs as well as their medical needs. The Medical-Legal Community Partnership (MLCP) at Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) helps people meet these needs. The MLCP places attorneys in community health centers—including four that provide MAT. At first glance, it may seem strange that a legal assistance organization is partnering with medical clinics. But legal assistance is one part of a comprehensive strategy to fight addiction and promote recovery.  

 This September, advocates across the country are celebrating recovery month. For the past 31 years, recovery month has aimed to educate the public about the availability of treatment. If more people are aware of best practices in seeking treatment, then more people who are suffering from addiction can heal and thrive. 

In honor of recovery month, here are 4 ways that legal aid can support recovery:   

1. Legal aid helps patients access social services   

When a patient is suffering from poverty or a general lack of resources, recovering from substance use is far more difficult. Unfortunately, the safety net is complex and difficult to navigate. MLCP attorneys can act both as a guide and as an advocate. They can refer patients to the appropriate social services and fight for them if they are unfairly denied access to these services. In particular, the MLCP is part of a vast network of legal aid providers here in Philadelphia. So, if there is a legal issue that our attorneys cannot immediately address, then they can refer the patient to the appropriate resource. 

2. Legal aid provides support to those with mental illness   

The issues of substance abuse and mental health are intimately linked. A history of trauma or mental illness can make a person more susceptible to opioid addiction. Even if a person does not suffer from a mental illness, research has shown a clear link between poverty and chronic stress. MLCP attorneys are not mental health professionals. However, they can help patients with external factors that may be damaging their mental health, allowing patients to better focus on recovery. 

3. Legal aid addresses discrimination   

The scientific and medical community—including the American Psychiatric Association (APA)—regards addiction as a disease, rather than a moral failing. As a result, Opioid Use Disorder is classified as a disability in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Unfortunately, society as a whole has yet to catch up with the experts’ consensus. In addition to the general stigma that addiction faces, patients that receive Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) sometimes face an extra layer of hostility. In a MAT program, patients receive counseling and therapy to treat the root cause of their addiction. They are also given a mild opioid medication. This medication is crucial in preventing relapses, overdoses and withdrawal symptoms.    

Unfortunately, some perceive this as comparable to addiction itself. This harmful attitude may cause employers or landlords to discriminate against those receiving MAT. This is illegal under federal antidiscrimination laws such as the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, not all patients are aware of this. MLCP attorneys can help by informing patients about these laws and advocating on their behalf if they are a victim of discrimination.   

4. Legal aid fights for the most vulnerable  

In the past two years, the MLCP has partnered with three more health centers—Health Center 6 (between Kensington and Northern Liberties), Health Center 3 (in West Philadelphia) and Maria De Los Santos Health Center (in Kensington). At the Maria De Los Santos Health Center, the MLCP is partnering with Health Partners Plans. Health Partners Plans is a managed care organization, which enables them to refer high-need patients to the MLCP. Research has shown that many people who use the emergency room at high rates have unmet social needs. For example, someone may use the emergency room to get treatment for asthma attacks that are caused by poor living conditions. While a doctor can treat their asthma, an MLCP attorney can take legal action against their landlord and ensure that they can afford their treatment through Medicaid. 

As we have seen, opioid addiction is a pressing issue in our community, and COVID-19 has only made it worse. Effective recovery, however, requires a holistic approach. This is where the Medical-Legal Community Partnership comes in; it ensures that the social needs (not just the medical needs) of people going through recovery are met.  

Are you interested in supporting Philadelphians in recovery?  

This September, PLA (along with addiction treatment advocates across the country) is celebrating recovery month.  If you are interested in supporting our work, you can donate here: