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Project HEAL

When her son Migel was born with spina bifida, Ashley Sanchez—a single mother of three—knew she lacked the financial means to cover his medical care. So, acting on his behalf, she applied for supplemental security income benefits. But she was denied.

Thinking it was a mistake, she applied again. Again, denied. Then came a third request and a third denial, with the Social Security Administration insisting Migel was not disabled. Feeling hopeless and uncertain where to turn, Sanchez explained her predicament to Migel’s physician Eric Levey at Kennedy Krieger Institute. And that’s when she learned about Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law) at Kennedy Krieger, a medical-legal partnership (MLP) between the Institute and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service that serves low-income families. 

Part of a larger national MLP network, Project HEAL is the only program of its kind in Maryland. Medical-legal partnerships integrate legal assistance into health care settings so that vulnerable individuals—patients with disabilities, for instance—receive the support and resources they need. Currently, there are MLPs in 225 hospitals and health centers in 38 states.  Partnership sites receive technical support from the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership in Boston to support the expansion, advancement, and integration of the MLP model and to coordinate national research and policy initiatives related to preventative law, health disparities, and the social factors of health. 

Project HEAL Results

Since its inception in the fall of 2005, Project HEAL has provided direct representation to more than 240 low-income patients and families at Kennedy Krieger. Of these cases, more than 95 percent were related to special education matters, while others involved appeals following the denials of supplemental security income for children with disabilities, like Migel Sanchez, who did eventually receive his benefits and, subsequently, the care he needed.

Additionally, the Project has provided brief advice—such as educational materials, document reviews, and referrals—to more than 780 Institute patients and families, along with brief consultations to health care professionals on more than 950 matters involving issues such as educational information or referrals. Another critical component of Project HEAL is the advocacy training programs about various topics affecting individuals with disabilities, such as:

  • Special education law
  • Transition services for children with disabilities
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Guardianship and Less Restrictive Alternatives
  • Public Benefits

"Project HEAL is an amazing testament to what can happen when physicians and lawyers work together to benefit patients and families,” says the Project’s director, attorney Maureen van Stone. “When we cooperate with one another, we can have a monumental impact on the lives of the families who trust us.”

National Conference in Baltimore

Each year, the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership holds a three-day MLP Summit for healthcare professionals and lawyers across the country.  

This year’s program, “Medical-Legal Partnership: A New Standard of Care,” is currently in Baltimore through March 25. It offers a unique opportunity for Project HEAL to showcase its outstanding work to the National Center and other MLP sites from across the country.  

Project HEAL at Kennedy Krieger is believed to be one of only two MLPs that are partnered with a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. At the MLP Summit in March, Dr. Christopher Smith the director of the MCDD and Maureen van Stone, associate director, spoke on a panel entitled, “Legal Needs Across the Lifespan: From Children with Special Healthcare Needs to Adults with Chronic Disease.”

Dr. Smith and Ms. van Stone hope that by introducing the idea of partnering MLPs with UCEDDs, they can demonstrate how to better address the legal needs of individuals with disabilities across the lifespan and possibly identify a sustainable funding source for many struggling MLPs. 

For more information about the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, including the Summit, please visit the website:

For more information about Project HEAL at Kennedy Krieger Institute please contact Aisha Mason, administrative coordinator for the MCDD, at (443) 923-9555.