Montana legal program helps address social determinants of health

Attorney Megan Dishong (left) discusses patients who will be referred to the medical-legal partnership with Hollie Timmons, program manager, Community Health Investment Eastern Washington | Montana.

In 2020, Providence Montana and Montana Legal Services Association partnered to form the state’s first hospital-based medical-legal partnership.

Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Providence St. Joseph Medical Center caregivers in Missoula and Polson who work with patients to improve social determinants of health, such as housing and food access, can now connect patients to legal assistance to address civil needs.

Of the more than 280 patients who have been referred to the medical-legal partnership, assistance with housing has been the biggest need, with 40% of referrals originating from a housing issue.

A medical-legal partnership attorney, Megan Dishong, explained, “In our community’s current housing environment, we often don’t have perfect solutions, but I can work to dial the level of crisis down.” Once that crisis level is reduced, impacted individuals have an opportunity to focus on their health and safety.

Janet*, a beneficiary of the partnership and program, mentioned to a Providence Montana care manager that she was in the middle of being evicted, a distressing and destabilizing experience for a family. The care manager connected Janet with Dishong.

Dishong was able to work with the landlord’s attorney to prevent an eviction record on Janet’s housing history. Janet was also able to use funding from Montana’s emergency rental assistance to pay back-rent and avoid accumulating housing debt that would make it more difficult to obtain future housing.

*To protect patient identity, names were changed for the purposes of this story.