By Megan Daugherty, 3L
ATLANTA - For students interested in policy-making and the legislative process, Professor Sylvia Caley’s two-semester Health Legislation and Advocacy (HLA) course is a must. HLA is unlike any other law school course. While many professors teach legal subjects through heavy reading from casebooks followed by lectures, Caley teaches students about the legislative process by throwing them right into the ring.
During the first semester, students gain practical experience by working directly with a non-profit community partner to address a health-related issue of importance to the organization. Students hit the ground running, meeting with the non-profit’s leaders during the second week of class to discuss the organization’s legislative goal. Students then research the issue and draft legislation to accomplish that goal.
"Many of the legislative issues worked on in this class are problems requiring a systemic solution that have arisen repeatedly through the provision of direct legal services to children and their families served by the Health Law Partnership (HeLP)," said Caley.
For example, last year students worked with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (Children’s) to increase the age for mandatory child restraint systems in vehicles. This issue was important to Children’s because a large number of their patients between the ages of six and eight, who were injured in car accidents, were inadequately restrained during the accident and may have avoided injury had they been in a safety seat. HLA students drafted legislation mandating that children under eight years old ride in a safety seat. The bill was passed by both chambers of the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Deal.
This year’s community partners include Children’s, Georgians for a Healthy Future, and the Georgia Advocacy Office.
In the spring semester, classes are held at the Capitol. The students participate in the legislative process by working with their community partners to educate and support legislators sponsoring their bills; attending committee meetings; preparing testimony, floor speeches, and community education briefs; and maintaining a legislative summary.
Complementary to the hands-on legislative experience, local experts involved in the development, implementation, and oversight of health policy in the Atlanta community share their views and experiences with the class. "With only eight law students enrolled in the course, the classroom setting is professional but informal, allowing us the opportunity to ask questions and engage the speakers in discussion," said John DiNatale (3L).
This year’s invited speakers included experts in a wide variety of health policy fields, from legislators and regulators to interest groups, health providers, and journalists. The fall semester kicked off with a presentation by Anton Gunn, Region IV Director of the Department of Health and Human Services, who explained to the class how the Affordable Care Act is being implemented in Georgia. "The new law is complicated and politically controversial, so it was surprising to see that the health insurance exchanges are being executed in a very orderly, systematic way," said Megan Daugherty (3L).
Representative Sharon Cooper (R-41), Chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee of the Georgia General Assembly, and Representative Stacey Abrams (D-84), House Minority Leader, spoke to the class about the legislative process and representing the interests of their constituents. "Representing both political parties, the women offered very different perspectives on the obstacles to pushing a legislative agenda forward," said Emily Frantz (2L). "Regardless of your politics, it’s nice to hear both sides of the story," added Joseph Leonard (2L).
Alan Essig, Executive Director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, spoke to the class about Georgia’s 2012 budget and revenue picture. "I had no idea the extent to which Georgia’s fiscal policy impacts every aspect of how our government operates," said David Rhodes (3L).
Betsy Howerton, Deputy Legislative Counsel for the Georgia General Assembly, spoke to the students about drafting health-related legislation and analyzing the legality of proposed bills. "Since many of Georgia’s legislators are not attorneys, one of the legislative counsel’s most important tasks is to make sure the lawmakers understand the legal implications of proposed legislation," said Sam Park (2L).
Andy Miller, former health journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and CEO of Georgia Health News, spoke to the class about his 2007 AJC series "A Hidden Shame," which exposed serious safety problems in Georgia’s mental hospitals. He described how a few pieces of evidence were investigated and built upon to uncover the alarming truth, which ultimately resulted in major reforms at the state-run facilities. "Mr. Miller’s work was inspiring," said Clair Bryan (3L). "His investigative journalism put an end to serious abuses suffered by some of our most vulnerable citizens."
Donald Palmisano, Executive Director of the Medical Association of Georgia, an advocacy group representing the interests of physicians, spoke to the class about the role of lawyers, lobbyists, and interest groups in the development of health policy. "Mr. Palmisano’s presentation was timely, since health policy is such a hot topic in politics these days, and it is helpful to know that legal careers such as his exist outside of the courtroom," said Evelyn Clark (2L).
The semester ended with a tour of the Capitol and a discussion session with Toby Carr, Transportation Policy Advisor to Governor Nathan Deal. He explained the role of the executive branch in the legislative process, from setting a legislative agenda prior to the session to signing favorable bills into law following their passage by the General Assembly.
"Hopefully the students finished the first semester with a good understanding of how many different factors impact the development of health-related policy and laws," said Caley. "This knowledge will prepare them for the fast-paced, complicated legislative process that they will participate in during the spring semester."
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