Solutions: Providers, lawyers join to help patients stay in recovery - and housed

A partnership between a substance abuse treatment agency and a law firm is proving effective in helping people rebuild their lives.

Credit: Paul Lachine/NewsArt

Credit: Paul Lachine/NewsArt


Helping substance abusers stay healthy and productive depends on more than addiction treatment. Treatment programs across the country are finding that partnerships with law firms can help those in recovery effectively manage their lives and health.

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Veronica Benson had already experienced being unhoused at the start of the pandemic, as well as years of chronic pain due to arthritis and an addiction to the painkillers prescribed to treat it when miscommunication and missing paperwork put her at risk of losing her home again. Undergoing treatment for substance use and the anxiety of potentially returning to rooming homes and hotels triggered a relapse.

Benson, a former preschool teacher who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, knew she needed help — and not just with her addiction.

That’s when a therapist at the Cooper Center for Healing, where she was receiving treatment for substance use, directed her to legal services just a couple of floors above. There, she met Landon Hacker, an attorney with the Camden Coalition, a nonprofit addressing health and social barriers to care. Hacker, who started working with the coalition in 2022, filled out her paperwork with her, helped her navigate an extensive and complicated appeals process and got her federal housing voucher reinstated.

“I mean, he helped me a lot, to the point where I was able to keep my housing,” Benson said. The program also helped her with bills owed.

The Camden Coalition launched its medical-legal partnership (MLP) with Rutgers Law School in 2017 and the MLP has been working closely with the Center for Healing since 2022. One of hundreds of links between healthcare organizations and legal teams across the country, the partnership is an effort to remove legal obstacles that may prevent people with substance use disorders from getting, or sticking with, addiction treatment.

The work being done is part of a larger, nationwide effort to destigmatize and decriminalize mental illness and substance use.

“Any of us can fall susceptible to a mental health disorder or an addiction at any point in our lives,” said Iris Jones, clinical operations manager at Cooper Center. “People in recovery are not morally failing and they’re not bad people … they’re human beings like everyone else, they deserve medical care just like everyone else and they deserve not to be punished for having a [substance] use disorder.”

Removing obstacles to recovery

It’s common for patients to face multiple obstacles in addition to — and sometimes due — to substance use.

“Substance use is a chronic disease. It’s a neurological disorder,” said Jones. “We see impaired judgment in substance use, and so many times that can result in legal charges or other challenges.”

Benson, 48, had arthritis for several years before the constant pain forced her to leave her job in billing at a hospital.

After losing her house to a fire in February 2020, Benson’s mental health declined, intensifying her opioid addiction.

The partnership aims to help substance use patients avoid incarceration or re-incarceration. The aim is to provide an alternative, non-punitive approach to recovery.

“What we realized is no matter how much medical care and social support we’re able to provide a patient, if they happen to encounter incarceration, we’re starting over from square one,” Jones said. “

Although she has never faced criminal legal trouble, Benson says she also benefited from the judgment-free “open door” policy of the treatment center. When her drug tests were positive, Cooper staff did not turn her away. Instead, they gave her medicine and encouraged her to come to the center more frequently.

“That’s what made me keep coming back – because they didn’t give up on me,” said Benson.

Positive results, and obstacles

While the MLP does not yet have data to reflect its impact, the organization says patient outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive. The partnership is working on an evaluation of their results led by the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University.

To be sure, there are limitations to the MLP model, mostly in its ability to be scaled up and paid for. The MLP currently has two attorneys with plans to add a third in the fall.

The Camden MLP, like many others across the country, is supported by a patchwork of funding sources. The Camden Coalition declined to disclose the annual budget for its MLP. The median budget for an MLP is about $100,000 a year, according to a report by the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership. That number is likely low, however, because most MLPs draw on in-kind support from healthcare organizations and donated time from attorneys, the report said.

In at least seven states (California, Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Oregon) and the District of Columbia, Medicaid managed care contracts or waivers include funding for legal services, according to the report. The arrangement allows for the impact of legal services on healthcare to be tracked, too.

The Camden MLP knows that stable funding is key to its long term success and the coalition plans to advocate for government funding for this type of work, as well as money from the opioid litigation settlements.

Inspired to give back

Benson hopes to eventually help introduce or support similar programs near where she lives.

“Even if I had to volunteer, I would love to work with those programs because that’s always been a passion of mine to help other people,” she said. “Before I became sick and became addicted I was just like those programs, helping other people, wanting to help anywhere I possibly can.”

For Benson, a former daycare owner who recalls moments when she was able to help young people in her community, it’s all connected.

“The help that I was able to give other people, I was able to receive myself.”

Shawna James is a senior at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia. Kyndall Hubbard, who graduated from the University of Missouri with a documentary journalism degree in 2022, is a Youthcast Group editorial assistant. This reporting was supported by funding from The Sozosei Foundation, which also gives money to the Camden Coalition MLP. YMG maintains editorial independence from its donors.

About the Solutions Journalism Network

This story is republished through our partner, the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.

Camden Coalition attorney Landon Hacker (left) was assigned Veronica Benson’s housing case in 2022 and the two have worked together since. Photo by Courtney Curtis, Youthcast Media Group.

Credit: Courtney Curtis, Youthcast Media Group

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Credit: Courtney Curtis, Youthcast Media Group