There are few debates in contemporary America that take up more oxygen than health care and government policy. From the U.S. Supreme Court to Carson City, from private-sector employers to individual patients, health care legal and regulatory issues are front-and-center from the kitchen table to the halls of Congress.
Stacey Tovino, Lehman Professor of Law at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, pointed out, after all, that few issues are more important to individuals than their health and the health of their loved ones.
That is why the Health Law Program, which Tovino directs, is a young, but quickly growing, concentration at the Boyd School of Law, and an important element of the school’s curriculum. The program is a partnership with the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences, with a mission “to support and promote the dynamic teaching, sponsored research, scholarship, experiential work and community engagement that arises by connecting these fields.”
Headlines testify to the importance of the application of law to health issues. Some of the topics that have made national news in the last few years include medical malpractice cases, profound changes in federal medical policy, the mental-health competency of accused mass killers, access to contraception through private-sector health insurance plans, and the emotional debate over childhood-vaccination requirements.
Presidential candidates have proposed fundamental rewrites to the 50-year-old Medicare and Medicaid programs. States have ordered the mandatory isolation and quarantine of health care professionals who have returned from treating disease outbreaks overseas.
The pace of the health issues hitting the news may have accelerated — for example, the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 — but Tovino noted that the courts have been wrestling with medicine and various issues of government regulation since the enactment of national health programs for the poor and elderly during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
“It’s true that the government is very heavily regulating the health care industry right now, but it’s also true that it’s been the case for every administration, basically since 1965,” she noted.
Legal and regulatory issues are still a challenge for the private sector, government agencies and patients, which makes the Health Law Program important. With decades of legal and regulatory history now affecting health care, people and companies need access to the law.
“Our goal is to train our students to navigate the different federal and state regulations governing the health care industry,” Tovino said.
The health care industry is, she noted, heavily regulated because health and health care are critically important issues to people: ultimately, a literal issue of life or death.
A total of five faculty members and one administrator are part of the program. Tovino said their scholarship and teaching reflect the huge range of perspectives and the myriad issues of law and health care.
“We have faculty who represent the patient perspective, who are promoting human rights and patient rights,” she said. “We have people focusing on doctors and hospitals and the legal issues they face.”
The scope of the program includes looking at the front end of public health and the back end of the regulatory process and procedures, where companies and individuals need legal help, Professor Tovino noted.
“The one really amazing thing about our program is that we truly have it all,” Professor Tovino said. “We’ve got a very well-rounded faculty. Our Health Law Program faculty members have a depth and breadth of expertise in all aspects of health law that – I am obviously biased! – I think is unparalleled in health law programs across the country.”
For program faculty, a key component is scholarship. The six faculty members of the program have authored at least 30 scholarly works in various publications since 2012, with more already slated for publication next year.
The need for trained law school graduates with deeper knowledge of health issues is unlikely to wane, she said, in part because the statutes and regulations dealing with the tangled issues of health care are evolving rapidly.
That evolution sometimes means that Health Law Program faculty and students get directly involved in the drafting of new laws. Professor Sara Gordon is working with the government of the state of Alaska to amend the state’s mental health statutes, for example.
“So we not only interpret and apply and teach the law, but we actually have a hand in shaping the law,” Tovino said. “And we make sure that our students are involved in that shaping process too. Our students don’t just sit in the classroom and listen to us lecture. They have a wide variety of experiential opportunities during law school so they can hit the ground running after graduation.”
In addition to working with law students, program faculty work with health care providers.
“Our program faculty members really enjoy serving our community, including the medical schools in our state,” Tovino said. “Not only do we educate law students, but we also seek to educate the community – which includes medical students, medical residents, and other health care providers – on the legal and ethical issues they will face in their professional practices, to give our law students the opportunity to share a common space with physicians and health professionals that some day they will be advising, counseling and representing.”
One example of the program’s connection with the health care community is a lecture series over the fall with Touro University’s Internal Medicine Residency Program. Topics in the series include Mandatory Reporting Laws, Ethical Issues in Clinical Trials Conducted in Developing Countries, Disability Law Obligations of Health Care Providers and Medical Institutions, and many more.
Engaging the public and medical communities with such a wide-ranging spectrum of topics connecting the law and health care means working with various people in the community, Professor Tovino said.
For example, Tovino participated in a conference in April 2014 on health care disparities in Nevada. She was on a panel with faculty from Boyd, the School of Community Health Sciences, the UNLV School of Dental Medicine, and the UNLV School of Nursing.
Tovino said the program is destined to grow.
“These are topics that are extremely important for the public, for health care providers, and for the legal community,” she said. “We feel that we’re in the right place at the right time to connect health care and the law.”