April 2013 Volume 9 Number 8

Chair's Column: Helping Our Veterans

By David L. Douglass, Sheppard Mullin, Washington, DC

AuthorOver there, over there, send the word, send the word over there. That the Yanks are comin, the Yanks are comin, …And we won’t come back ‘til it’s over, over there.
— George M. Cohan

I write this column on the ten year anniversary of the second Iraq invasion, which of course followed closely on the heels of our intervention in Afghanistan. As in World War II, our young men and women ventured bravely overseas to battle tyranny and defend democracy. I, like many others, did not expect then that this 21st century call to arms would last more than a decade. Many have come home, although of course many have not, and as the wars wind down, many more will be returning. Soon, hopefully, it will be over, over there. How will we serve those who served for us?

The Section’s Emerging Issues Conference this past February offered insightful, timely and informative panels that covered virtually the full spectrum of current health law issues, challenges and opportunities. For me, and I know for many others, a memorable and eye-opening highlight was the presentation that addressed the health law challenges that will confront our returning veterans: Our Nation’s Veterans’ Courts and Criminal Justice System: A Public Health Policy Approach. This expert panel examined the range of mental health issues that too many of our veterans will bring home with them, including traumatic brain injury, substance use disorders and mental health issues. Untreated, these conditions can subject our veterans – and their families – to pain, suffering and isolation and can set them on a path to imprisonment and homelessness.

Although these illnesses have often been described as invisible injuries, we learned that the technological, medical and legal tools to identify and treat them exist. Our nation’s challenge is to effectively deploy them to avert a potential public health crisis. The complexity of our healthcare system, which is compounded by change and uncertainty that accompanies the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is one of the barriers to ensuring that every veteran has meaningful access to the kind and quality of mental healthcare he or she needs. The solution is mobilization, which requires awareness, advocacy and action.

As health lawyers we are positioned, and many of us would argue obligated, to respond. The Health Law Section is responding to the call. Led by our Substance Use Disorder Task Force, we are undertaking to mobilize the resources of the ABA to identify and eliminate the barriers to effective mental health treatment. We look forward to working with other ABA entities in this effort. The breadth and depth of our Section members’ knowledge and expertise as well as our ability to coordinate with our sister Sections, Forums and Divisions uniquely qualify the ABA and the Health Law Section to embrace this important public health issue. We look forward to the involvement of our members in our efforts.

Of course, while it is right and important to focus on the needs of our returning military and support personnel, it is also right and important to acknowledge that brain injury, substance use and mental health disorders are not exclusively veteran’s conditions. They are society’s conditions. There are many of our citizens who will encounter barriers to obtaining the mental healthcare they need, despite the availability of treatment options. We have no less an obligation to them. Universal health care coverage is a laudable goal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but undoubtedly along the path to that goal some, especially those without a voice or an advocate, may be left behind or left out. My father, the jurist I most admire, once told me that whenever our country has faced a great social challenge, it turns to lawyers for the solution. He was speaking then of the civil rights movement; but, if healthcare reform is our nation’s current challenge, then it is not surprising that society will expect health lawyers to be part of the solution. And we should be part of the solution for every part of society.

Physician Legal Issues Conference Fast Approaching

Our next opportunity to come together to explore current health law issues will be the Section’s Physician Legal Issues Conference, June 13-15 in Chicago. We have lined up fantastic speakers from the physician legal and leadership communities. Among the topics to be addressed are: physician contracting and valuation, ACOs and payment delivery models, coordinating roles of medical staff and hospital attorneys, physician wellness and patient safety, social media, medical malpractice and privacy. Our speakers are coming from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Office for Civil Rights, the American College of Physician Executives, commercial payors and academia - in addition to practicing physicians and lawyers with diverse perspectives. As we did last year, we are presenting the conference in conjunction with the Chicago Medical Society.

This year we are especially excited, because for the first time we will jointly sponsor a part of the program with the American Medical Association. We are adding a third day to the conference to be held the morning of the first day of the AMA’s Annual Meeting. The conference will be an unmatched opportunity for lawyers and their clients to come together to address the legal challenges facing the medical community. Chicago in June is wonderful. I hope to see you there.

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