CBA Sept.-Oct. 2020


Pro Bono Week 2020 Advancing Health Equity: Answers Are Within Reach

By Kate Miller and Sarah Hess

M s. Diaz is a grandmother and an essential worker at a hospital. Just before the Covid-19 pan- demic, she took temporary guardianship of her two granddaughters, both with serious health conditions. To provide for them, Ms. Diaz had to keep her job even during the pandemic, and needed additional funds for their support. She applied for childcare and cash assistance through the Illinois Department of Human Services. Although eligible for both public benefits, she was denied. Ms. Diaz didn’t call a lawyer because she didn’t realize she had a “legal” issue. Without this support, she spent the bulk of her paycheck on childcare and medical costs. As she worked tirelessly to support the healthcare providers at her hospital fighting Covid-19, she struggled to pay her own bills. The stress of work- ing during a pandemic and keeping her grandchildren stable was toxic, affecting Ms. Diaz’s health, her ability to manage her grandchildren’s health, and the energy she needed to navigate the bureaucracy that had denied her the resources she so desperately needed. But Ms. Diaz found hope. Her grand- children’s hospital has a medical-legal part- nership (MLP), which means every social worker on staff has been trained to spot legal problems and refer them to a legal aid partner. When the children came for appointments, the social worker evaluated the “social determinants of health” affecting them, asking Ms. Diaz how she was doing making ends meet. Ms. Diaz shared that she had tried to appeal the benefits deni- als with no success and that the financial

strain was mounting. The social worker immediately referred her to the legal team, who secured cash assistance back payments and monthly support going forward. The legal team also obtained childcare benefits for Ms. Diaz, and ensured that she was reimbursed for the months she paid out of pocket. Additionally, the team advised Ms. Diaz about her household’s eligibility for SNAP food assistance, which put hundreds of dollars a month into the family’s food budget. The improvement was dramatic and life altering. Ms. Diaz’s situation replays itself throughout the Chicagoland area and illustrates the structural barriers to finan- cial well-being and health equity that the pandemic has laid bare. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people such as Ms. Diaz are more likely to be in front-line jobs that are categorized as “essential,” risking their own and their families’ health to work during the pandemic, often for only poverty-level

wages. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people also face disproportionately high Covid-19 death rates, and are more likely to live in areas that are experiencing out- breaks and lack easy access to testing and services. Longstanding racial disparities in health, wealth, and access to health care, education, employment, and housing all contribute to greater vulnerability to the virus and to the economic havoc it is wreaking. Governor Pritzker directly cited racism’s role in inequities that are evident with the pandemic, noting, “It’s hard to make up for decades, maybe centuries, of inequality of application of healthcare to people of color.” But the example of Ms. Diaz shows us that we do know one place to start.

Racial Inequality & Social Determinants of Health

Addressing racism and social determinants of health is central to the fight for health


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