Faculty Spotlight

Hope and Healing through Law: A Conversation with Prof. Joe Connors, Director of the Health Law Clinic

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Since 1997, Professor Joseph Connors has directed Albany Law School's Health Law Clinic, an experiential course through which law students provide free representation to individuals with chronic health conditions.

The Health Law Clinic—part of the larger Justice Center—provides a much-needed service to the Capital Region. In the past year alone, Professor Connors' clinic has helped more than 50 clients in the area who would not have otherwise been able to obtain legal representation.

We recently caught up with Professor Connors to discuss the important work of the Health Law Clinic, the legal issues facing its clients, how the clinic is partnering with the region's major health providers, and more:

In addition to leading the Health Law Clinic, Professor Connors has coached the law school's client counseling moot court teams with regional and national success. His coaching credentials include multiple regional championships and the 2016 ABA Client Counseling Competition national title.

Tell us about the Health Law Clinic.

Our Health Law Clinic is one of several of Albany Law School's experiential clinical courses. It is designed to help students acquire practical lawyering skills by representing clients with chronic health conditions, individuals who would not otherwise receive legal assistance.  It has its roots in our former AIDS Law Clinic, which was established in 1992 by Associate Dean Connie Mayer as one of the nation's first clinical education programs to address the unmet legal needs of individuals and families affected by HIV and AIDS.  I have been a faculty member since 1994 and directed our Health Law Clinic since 1997.

For the past several years, the scope of the course has expanded to also address the poverty law needs of clients affected by other chronic medical conditions, including cancer, mental illness, and substance abuse, to name a few.  The Health Law Clinic is grateful for the financial support it receives to carry out its mission from a grant from the New York State Department of Health and a generous donation from the family of Barry A. Gold.

Students in the clinic learn by planning, performing, reflecting, and collaborating.  The planning may include research concerning the substantive law and policy affecting a client's problem. It also involves classroom discussions and simulations to experiment with different ways to help a client understand and make decisions about their situation.  Often, planning includes collaborating with the medical and social services professionals who are also working with our clients. Faculty supervised "performances" include fact-investigating and rapport-building interviews with clients and others, often in non-traditional settings such as at clients' homes or health care treatment facilities.  Students also draft substituted health care decision making documents, powers of attorney and simple wills; attempt to negotiate solutions on behalf of their clients; and appear in administrative and court proceedings on their behalf.  Throughout the semester, both individual and collectively, students reflect on their progress in these areas and use their experience to help other clients, honing their skills and professional judgment through this process.  Typically, each student will represent between four and six clients each semester.

"We have represented over 50 clients in our community in the last year. Our interns' impact on their clients' lives was significant."

What kinds of legal issues are your clients facing?

The short answer is that our clients are facing a variety of problems which are impacted by social, health, and poverty dynamics.  Clients need medications or health services which have been prescribed by their physicians but whose insurance provider refuses to cover.  Clients who once worked are faced with a loss of employment income as their medical conditions progress and have been denied federal Social Security benefits.  Clients who want to return to work or school once their health improves are denied positions for which they are qualified due to the stigma attached to their medical conditions.  Clients who need extra help caring for their children are worried about who will care for them if their health condition deteriorates. Clients want to get their "final affairs" in order for peace of mind and the benefit of their loved ones.

My longer response would be: what is a legal issue and what is a lawyer's role in counseling a client about "non-legal" solutions to their problem?  I encourage my students to approach the practice of law holistically, with a commitment to using their broad range of skills to develop trusting relationships with their clients so that each client's problem can be addressed with an eye towards addressing both the immediate situation and the client's long term well-being, consistent with the client's goals, interests, and values.  This plays out in a variety of contexts.  Often times, we must identify and address the social determinants which are impacting the client's overall health as part of this process.

For example, a potential client just recovering from her last chemotherapy comes to the clinic stressed out with an eviction notice.  Students instinctively and appropriately begin researching defenses to the pending eviction notice.  Still, they check themselves and resist the temptation to turn this "client" before them into an "eviction case."  As they develop the relationship, interns discover that the client is a victim of domestic violence and the landlord's primary concern is about her fiancé's conduct, not a late rent payment or that her fiancé occasionally stays in her federally subsidized apartment in violation of applicable regulations.  What does the client want?  What impact would an eviction have on her future eligibility for a housing subsidy? What are the client's options?  Does she argue that allowing her fiancé in her apartment as a health aide is required under disability discrimination laws? Does she answer the eviction petition with counterclaims?  Does she want to stay with her fiancé, despite the alleged abuse to which she has been subjected?  What risks does this create for her and her children? What other options has she considered?  Is moving to a new apartment in a different school district feasible?  What would moving to another apartment without her fiancé look like? What public transportation alternatives are available at any potential alternative housing locations which would allow continuity of her medical treatment?   Are there avenues for additional home health aide services which have not been explored?  How would these decisions impact her children and their relationships? How open is she to talking about her relationship with her fiancé with a confidential mental health counselor? Would her children benefit from counseling?  Where is the line drawn between appropriate legal counseling and inappropriate emotional support or relationship counseling?  Who are her allies to help her move past the immediate eviction notice and promote her long term well-being?

Practicing law is a dynamic process, which requires lawyers to develop trusting relationships where these types of issues can be raised, so that clients can make informed decisions regarding the paths they wish to pursue. 

"The Health Law Clinic was an early proponent of the now-proven approach that medical providers should "prescribe" legal services for their patients to improve their patients' health outcomes."

How do your students respond to this work? Can you give us some success stories from the past year?

Our students are impressive.  They are smart enough to know that there is much they do not know as they prepare to meet their first clients.  Still, they are hard-working, resilient, humble, and open to listening and learning from their clients as they develop their professional relationships with them.  I, too, learn from my students as they push forward past their fears to apply their skills and compassion to help the former-strangers-turned-current-clients who need their help.  Mainly, through their eyes and perspectives, I am reminded to take time to identify and reassess assumptions we have made about our clients, our role, and the plans we are implementing. My students' reflective experiences with their clients inform my teaching, inspiring me to reflect how I can further advance each student's professional growth.

Besides this success in learning from each other, we have been fortunate over the past year to have several opportunities to celebrate with our clients.   We have represented over 50 clients in our community in the last year.  Our interns' impact on their clients' lives was significant.  Interns represented a grandmother coping with AIDS, depression, and back pains at a Medicaid fair hearing, preventing this client's home health care services from being reduced from 21 hours per week to eight hours per week as proposed by her managed care provider; settled a federal court action involving the termination of kinship foster care benefits which a client had been receiving for her minor grandson;  obtained a favorable decision following a Social Security Administration hearing, awarding retroactive Supplemental Security Income disability benefits to April 2014 for a 22-year-old mother struggling from the combined effects of an intellectual disability and HIV;  prevented a client from being evicted from public housing, while protecting her housing subsidy and the long-term safety of her and her children; and counseled a client who has been subjected to the terms of a community civil commitment order for over 20 years, following a plea to an old charge.

"[M]any of our students pursue direct careers in Health Law following graduation. We have several former Health Law Clinic students now employed at the New York State Department of Health, Division of Legal Affairs.  Others help the chronically ill through their employment at insurance plans and carriers.  Still others are involved in compliance initiatives at hospitals and other health care facilities."

The Health Law Clinic recently entered into a Medical-Legal Partnership with St. Peter's Health Partners. What is the clinic's role in the partnership, and how has it been going?

Medical-Legal Partnerships, attorneys working closely with medical providers to identify and address legal problems affecting client/patient's health, have been the cornerstone of the Heath Law Clinic since its inception. Our close relationship with Albany Medical Center and the Alliance for Positive Health dates back to the early 1990s when we first coordinated legal appointments with appointments our clients had with their medical and social services case management teams.  The result was quick response and resolution of immediate legal issues, as well as avoidance of future legal problems thanks to early preventative legal counseling.  The Health Law Clinic was an early proponent of the now-proven approach that medical providers should "prescribe" legal services for their patients to improve their patients' health outcomes.

Since 2017, Albany Law School's Health Law Clinic has joined forces with St. Peter's Health Partners and the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY) to better serve the patients at St. Peter's Health Partners sites. The partnership is spearheaded by former Health Law Clinic intern and current LASNNY staff attorney Alexis Kutski, Esq., who has a routine presence at St. Peter's Hospital, working closely with its medical team to identify and address the legal needs of patients with serious illnesses such as heart disease, liver failure, and cancer.  Ms. Kutski had referred several client cases to the Health Law Clinic interns in the past year and we look forward to future collaboration with these valued partners.

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