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Akron law latest school to offer specialty training for future health lawyers

Last summer The University of Akron School of Law became the latest institution in northeast Ohio to offer specialized training for those considering going into the field, launching its Public Health Law & Science Center and Health Law Certificate Program. The students pictured (from left to right) include Michael Wright, Jamison Johnson, Rod Moore, Keith Dye, Amanda Miller, Kelsie Carson, Garrett Brown, Dr. Julie Aultman, Travis Watson, Monica Livers, Timothy Weimer, Tabitha Stearns, Zachary Hostetler, Ellen Linz, Omar Shariff, Marc Chenowith, Matthew Mooney and Professor Katharine Van Tassel.

Special to the Legal News

Published: December 20, 2013

As officials and pundits continue to debate the long-term effects of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, law schools have begun stepping up their efforts to train future healthcare lawyers charged with helping clients comply with the act’s regulations and adapt to changes brought on by advancements in the medical field.

Last summer The University of Akron School of Law became the latest institution in northeast Ohio to offer specialized training for those considering going into the field, launching its Public Health Law & Science Center and Health Law Certificate Program. (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and Case Western Reserve University already offer specialized health law training).

“One of the main goals of the center is to protect public health through the use of law, science and technology,” said Katharine Van Tassel, law professor and director of the Public Health Law & Science Center and the health law program at The University of Akron School of Law. “Traditionally law has lagged behind science and technology, sometimes by decades, often to the detriment of public health.

“Legal thinking should be anticipating the technologies of tomorrow. Electronic health records, big data strategies, genomics, epigenetics, stem cells, genetic modification and 3D printing, all bring with them their own unique regulatory challenges.”

For example, said Van Tassel, genetic testing offers great hope to patients but the information that is generated must be protected to ensure that it is not used against them when applying for or retaining jobs.

Van Tassel said the center offers courses and training designed to give students an advantage in specialty areas of healthcare law.

“Regulatory compliance is a hot pocket area because of Obamacare, which has created an enormous amount of new regulations that attorneys will have to help employers and healthcare organizations comply with at the local, state and federal levels.

“Lawyers must be ready to help clients mitigate the risks by instituting and following appropriate policies.”

The classes are taught by experienced professionals like Dr. Julie Aultman, the director of Northeast Ohio Medical University’s (NEOMED) Bioethics Program and Christopher Goff, chief executive officer and general counsel at Employers Health Coalition and its subsidiary, Employers Health Purchasing Corporation.

“My clients are large self-insured employers who grapple everyday with Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act compliance,” said Goff, who teaches health law II, which deals with issues created by the law as well as ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act). “We need to train lawyers who are capable of handling all matters associated with the new law, whether the clients are providers, insurers or employers.”

Goff is also the chair of the center’s 14-person steering committee that will work with Van Tassel to set up a board of advisors. Van Tassel said the center wants to create a dialogue among professionals in scientific, medical and technical fields, lawyers, regulators, journalists and the public to address changes in legal policy and advances in the field in a way that is beneficial to society as a whole.

“One of the biggest offshoots that I am seeing is the advent of private healthcare exchanges which many large retailers are now using to provide benefits to employees,” said Goff. “Employers must also figure out how to properly calculate full- versus part-time status in order to determine who is eligible for benefits, which is especially difficult in the case of variable-hour employees since it may be unknown how many hours these employees might work.

“The coursework being offered is so timely since these are issues that will make students marketable in today’s legal workforce.”

Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs healthcare lawyer Joseph Feltes is also a guest lecturer at the Public Health Law & Science Center as well as a member of the steering committee.

“I have been a healthcare lawyer for 35 years,” said Feltes, the partner in charge of Buckingham’s Canton office. “Right now we are in the middle of a paradigmatic change in the delivery and payment of healthcare services. There has been nothing like it for the past 50 years and regardless of the fate of Obamacare there is no turning back the clock on things like value-driven care, hospital-physician alignment, patient-centered medical homes, technology and significant advances in research and science.

“Healthcare lawyers in the future are going to need to get their arms around the regulations which are going to come out in droves and tackle the legal and ethical debates that result from research. I think law and science are going to have to learn to walk hand-in-hand and that is exactly what the new health center is preparing students to do.”

The University of Akron School of Law already has three other specialized centers––The Joseph G. Miller and William C. Becker Center for Professional Responsibility, The Center for Intellectual Property Law and Technology and The Center for Constitutional Law. Van Tassel said educators are looking at creating a litigation center as well.

There are 19 students enrolled in the health law center, four in their final year and 15 2Ls, who will be able to begin externships this fall. Students who obtain a certificate in health law also have the option of earning one in intellectual property or litigation at the same time.

Second-year law student Tabitha Stearns learned about the center last year while taking Van Tassel’s torts class. “I’m interested in working for a pharmaceutical company or hospital,” said Stearns, who is taking health law––quality, cost and access as well as intellectual property, constitutional law, bioethics and expert evidence classes.

“I was surprised because a lot of classes teach legal theory but the health law curriculum is more practical,” said Stearns. “We are taught what happens in practice via simulated situations where we learn how to apply theory.

“We do presentations before the class as if we were arguing before a judge.”

Stearns, who is also working on a certificate in intellectual property law, said she is particularly excited about the opportunity that the program offers for externships. “The experience that I will gain is the most valuable part of the program because that is what employers are looking for,” said Stearns. “I have recommended the classes to 1Ls because of it, even if they are not interested in health law.”

Twenty-five-year-old Garrett Brown is also taking classes at the center. “I have always had an interest in health law, especially given that this area of Ohio has so many health systems and healthcare-related opportunities,” said Brown, a 3L, who has an undergraduate degree in pharmaceutical business from Ohio Northern University.

Brown has also worked part-time for Christopher Goff since 2011. “I’m interested in working in the field in an in-house capacity, handling benefits or managed care. I think the center’s opening is perfectly timed given the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and hopefully taking these classes will give me an edge once I graduate.”

In addition to training students, the Public Health Law & Science Center is partnering with the Austen BioInnovation Institute and the Akron Regional Hospital Association as well as others to examine and modernize laws of central Midwestern states governing isolation and quarantine for situations such as pandemic influenzas, drug-resistant tuberculosis, acts of bioterrorism and others issues. Van Tassel said one of the Public Health Disaster Law Preparedness Project’s goals is to create training modules in public health disease containment and disaster law.

“The Public Health Law & Science Center is ideally positioned to take advantage of the wealth of scientific and medical expertise of our faculty at The University of Akron, NEOMED, Northern Ohio’s biomedical corridor and our vibrant healthcare communities,” said Van Tassel.