Students help ensure that low-income families will have heat this winter.
Last year’s polar vortex undoubtedly sent residents running to turn up the thermostat, and forecasts suggest this year may be just as cold. But what happens to those families who can’t afford to pay their heating bills?
This winter, approximately 30,000 households in Rhode Island will face a utilities shutoff because they can’t pay their bills. Families must choose between paying for food and paying for heat, the so-called “heat or eat” dilemma; as a result, children from these households tend to be smaller or malnourished. Children in the lowest weight percentiles have weakened immune systems—they’re more likely to fall ill, and more likely to fall ill severely. Some may even contract hypothermia.
To assist at-risk families, the Rhode Island Medical-Legal Partnership hosted its annual utility clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in October. Six Alpert Medical School students volunteered alongside Roger Williams University law students, Rhode Island College Social Work students, and workers from Health Leads, a national organization that addresses non-medical needs of families relevant to children’s health.
“The clinic is an excellent opportunity to offer assistance in one place,” says Liz Tobin Tyler, JD, MA, an assistant professor at Alpert Medical School and the Brown School of Public Health. Tyler helped create the clinic in 2008 as part of her Poverty, Health, and Law course, which she teaches annually to Alpert Medical and Roger Williams law students.
At the clinic, volunteers determined whether families were eligible for state assistance with their heating bill. They then met with National Grid representatives to negotiate payment plans. Families eligible for state assistance were able to apply for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program onsite, through representatives from the Community Action Partnership of Providence.
Volunteering at the clinic can be an important part of medical education, Tyler says. “Medical students gain hands-on experience talking with patients and families before their clinical years,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for students to see the effects of health systems and policy on real families.”
Abass Noor MD’17, one of the student volunteers, says the complexities of state and corporate utility policies surprised him. “The solution is different for every client,” Noor says. “I found that the challenges faced by patients are often outside of the realm of medicine—sometimes putting the ‘doctor hat’ aside is crucial in addressing your patient’s needs.”