When I was a medical student, I often volunteered at student-run clinics that provided free medical care to underserved populations. One of the clinics that I worked in offered not only basic medical services, but also complimentary legal assistance from local law students. I thought that was neat, because most of our patients were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and in need of non-medical services in addition to medical attention; here was an opportunity to get both in the same place.
Now a study has found that offering free financial services—specifically tax preparation—in clinics can similarly benefit patients, and maybe even help get them in the door in the first place.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics in June 2018, took place at four pediatric health clinics treating mostly patients from underserved communities in Boston. The researchers offered free tax preparation services in 2016 and 2017 through a program called StreetCred; in particular they focused on helping eligible families to obtain the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), an antipoverty benefit funded by the federal and state governments. Research shows that children’s health improves when their caregivers receive the EITC—but many families who are eligible for the credit don’t receive it due to either not knowing about it or not filing tax returns on time and correctly.
A total of 753 clients used the free service over the course of the study, resulting collectively in more than $1.6 million dollars of federal tax refunds. Ninety-six percent of clients the researchers surveyed stated that they would use the tax preparation services again. And more than 80 percent agreed that getting taxes done at their clinic or hospital made them feel more connected to their doctors. In addition, the program received a 97 percent approval rate from the clinic staff.
Bottom line: These findings are important because poverty is a public health issue, and past studies have shown that the EITC reduces poverty for children and families. Any other tax refunds that the patients’ caregivers gained could also, at least in theory, be used toward improving their household food choices and preventive care. The findings also suggest that offering in-clinic tax services has a positive impact on the doctor-patient relationship, which could in turn help encourage repeat visits and adherence to recommended services or treatments.