Lawyer Uses Legal System to Battle Poverty, Improve Health for Working Poor

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Honors Amy Johnson, JD,
With a 2012 Community Health Leaders Award

PRINCETON, N.J.—Growing up in Arkansas, a state that ranks at or near the bottom in the country on many health indicators, Amy Johnson witnessed firsthand the connection between poverty and poor health. But even Johnson was surprised when health care providers told her they were seeing patients in some areas suffering from some of the same conditions that occur in Third World countries. Legal issues were often a complicating factor in managing health care and adequate living conditions.

“There is a real overlap between health and legal issues, especially in Arkansas, where it is a crime not to pay your rent, but there is no warranty of habitability,” said Johnson. “That means you can be required to pay rent on a place that is not livable. It may be infested with mold that inflames your asthma, or it may have faulty wiring that makes it impossible to operate the ventilator that you need to breathe.”

As the first executive director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, Johnson works to help low-income Arkansans overcome legal barriers that perpetuate poverty. In that role, she has helped raise more than $2.1 million to support the provision of free legal aid to low-income people. She also served on an advisory committee that oversaw the formation of the state’s first hospital-based medical-legal partnership.

Working with local clergy, she helped to establish the Harmony Health Clinic in Little Rock, a free clinic for the working poor—people who don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare and do not make enough money to afford health insurance. Harmony Health Clinic provides local medical and dental professionals with the opportunity to serve their community, help others, and volunteer their time and services to improve the quality of the health of their neighbors.  

For her tireless commitment, Johnson has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Johnson will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.

According to Johnson, most employers in Arkansas are small businesses that cannot afford to provide health insurance for their workers. Given this, Johnson said, there is no limit to the number of free health clinics that could be opened in her community. “We opened our clinic doors at the beginning of the economic downturn in 2008—patients just came flooding in. Our clinic, like many other nonprofits that serve low-income families, struggles daily with an overwhelming need for the services and a real lack of resources to provide them.” 

The clinic has 2,000 patients, the vast majority of whom suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. The care it provides is crucial to avoiding bigger health problems later. The results: There have been approximately 1,000 fewer emergency room visits and many families have been saved from the financial ruin that often follows an uninsured hospital stay.

Janice Ford Griffin, national program director of Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Johnson for her creativity and tireless determination. “The impact of Amy’s aggregated efforts to improve the health of the residents of Central Arkansas is an outstanding example of creativity across a broad spectrum,” Griffin said. “Her legal background and earlier experience as a social worker provided a tremendous foundation for the leadership she contributed to the establishment of Harmony Health Clinic. Her work touches the lives of thousands of Central Arkansas residents who otherwise would not have access to health care. Her persistence improves health for these individuals—and in many cases, quite literally saves lives.”

While an attorney may not be a typical member of the health care team, Johnson’s legal training along with her experience as a social service worker have increased her ability to be a visionary and a powerful leader. “An attorney is often able to address underlying legal issues that are affecting the patient’s health,” Johnson said.

For example, Johnson has helped more than 25 families petition for guardianship of adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Guardianship allows them to access critical mental health treatment and to avoid the involuntary commitment process and the hospitalization that accompanies it. She sees great possibility in the medical-legal partnership setting as well. “When a child has a chronic and debilitating health care issue and the school won’t make accommodations, or if someone is denied benefits they are qualified for but there is a paperwork mix-up, an attorney can often resolve the problem,” she said.

Rev. Michael Mattox, formerly of Little Rock’s First United Methodist Church, said in his letter of support for Johnson’s nomination: “Expertly trained in her field with accolades and honors, Amy has that something extra that makes her stand out in human relations. She has the ability to value her own opinions, but also the grace to be patient and forgiving to others. Were it not for her efforts, along with a couple other like-minded young professionals, I doubt that Little Rock would have a center for health care like Harmony Health Clinic. She has been that ‘behind the scenes’ force that has navigated through choppy waters to bring an institution to a better place of being able to help others, enhancing and even celebrating diversity and difference of opinion, which seem to be very rare things.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; an initiative to connect refugees to mental- health services in Seattle; a breast cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J.; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia, and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit  www.communityhealthleaders.org.

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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Community Health Leaders Award to recognize individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities. Today, there are more than 200 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit  www.communityhealthleaders.org.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter www.rwjf.org/twitter or Facebook www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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