Shaping the Future of Health Law

December 14, 2023

The Caduceus symbol with two serpents with two gold scales.

By Mary A. Dempsey

Soon after Dayna Bowen Matthew became dean of GW Law, she began to reposition the school to harness its untapped potential in the burgeoning field of health law. That recalibration is hitting its stride with the addition of nationally known faculty at the vanguard of health law scholarship and the unveiling this year of a new Health Law and Policy Program.

“We have top scholars in law and medicine, reproductive rights, health regulation, health finance, antitrust, and health equity policy,” said the dean, whose scholarship focuses on inequities in health and health care. “Our goal is to have leaders in the private sector, as well as policy-makers at state, federal, and local levels identify GW as the best law school in the country when it comes to influencing domestic health policy.”

Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew moderated a panel discussion with Professor Barak Richman, renowned health law attorney Jon Kahan, and Professor Sonia Suter at the October rollout of the Health Law and Policy Program.
Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew moderated a panel discussion with Professor Barak Richman, renowned health law attorney Jon Kahan, and Professor Sonia Suter at the October rollout of the Health Law and Policy Program.

With health expenditures accounting for nearly 19 percent of the GDP in the United States, health law has become one of the fastest-growing legal practice areas. GW’s Health Law and Policy Program and the creation of a health law concentration will leverage and build upon existing expertise in the school, which for the last three years has offered health law education under the umbrella of the Health Law Initiative.

“The health care industry is growing, and we are preparing our students for jobs in that sector, whether representing clients in health transactions, developing health policy, or navigating health regulation,” Matthew explained. “GW Law students will be head and shoulders above students from other schools because of the uniquely experiential education we offer from the nation’s capital.”

The new Health Law and Policy Program is co-directed by the Kahan Family Research Professor of Law Sonia Suter and Professor of Law Barak Richman, who is visiting GW this fall from Duke University School of Law and will become a full professor at GW next year.

The program is visualized as a stool supported by three legs. One leg focuses on law and medicine under the direction of Suter, who in 2020 founded the program’s predecessor, the Health Law Initiative. Suter added strength in the areas of the regulation of medicine, bioethics law, biotechnology, assisted reproductive technologies, and reproductive justice. The second leg, under Richman, looks at ways to control health care costs and health financing for the social determinants of health. Associate Professor of Clinical Law Emily Benfer will join Dean Matthew in providing the third leg, health equity and justice. Benfer’s pioneering work focuses on the intersection of health, housing, and law.

A leading scholar of health policy, bioethics, and ethical and legal issues in medicine and genetics, Suter joined the GW Law faculty in 1999 after holding a Greenwall Fellowship in bioethics and health policy at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities. Prior to law school, she earned a master’s degree and achieved PhD candidacy in human genetics and worked as a genetics counselor in obstetrics and pediatrics at Henry Ford Hospital.

An internationally recognized expert in genetics and the law and emerging reproductive technologies, Suter is a co-author of the leading textbooks in those areas. A prolific writer, she has published widely in law reviews, peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journals, and science journals. Her scholarship includes the regulation of assisted reproductive technologies and discrimination and privacy issues connected to genetic testing. One of her recent articles was selected for Editors’ Choice 2020 by the Journal of Law and the Biosciences, one of the leading peer-reviewed journals in medical ethics and legal medicine. She also participates in national working groups and advisory boards and is a consultant to policymakers in her fields of expertise.

This fall, GW’s Health Law and Policy Program also began leveraging Professor Barak Richman’s expertise and outstanding reputation within the medical community. He is an economist, lawyer, and powerhouse in transactions law and health policy. Richman’s focus is the area where health policy meets business and regulatory law and competition law. He has a particular interest in hospital-based care. His influential writing includes recent collaborations with Stanford University Professor of Medicine Kevin Schulman.

Richman points to the sheer size of the health care sector and its dependence on regulation in explaining why it is an essential area for legal education.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services controls four times the dollars as the Pentagon. The FDA regulates more of the economy than the Treasury Department. Health care is an increasingly important part of the economy,” he said. Despite that, only a minority of health law scholars focus on the economic and social drivers of health. Richman described it as “an area that has gotten inadequate attention.”

Under Benfer, the third component of the Health Law and Policy Program—health equity and justice—considers how racial inequity, poverty, housing, and other social determinants affect health. She recently received a $338,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to look at, along with researchers from Yale, Cornell, and Rutgers universities, right-to-counsel approaches for people facing eviction.

Concerns about homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted increasing numbers of jurisdictions to take eviction-prevention steps, including providing legal counsel for individuals in danger of losing their housing. The year-long study will look at the laws and policies in place or underway in dozens of jurisdictions, examine factors that enable successful and equitable implementation, identify pitfalls, and develop a framework and research priorities for assessing right to counsel programs.

“What’s exciting is the mixed methods approach. We’re employing policy surveillance, literature review, and qualitative methods that will allow us to propose a research framework for researchers interested in eviction law and policy and access to justice themes across the country,” Benfer said. “One of the most important aspects of the study, we’re interviewing tenants to determine the bounds of right to counsel as a policy tool and how it addresses power building and structures in race-class subjugated communities.”

“Emily Benfer’s grant project will help make GW Law a leader in informing policy related to housing law and innovations in access to justice,” the dean said. In addition to her work at GW Law, Benfer is a visiting research collaborator at the Eviction Lab at Harvard University, where she conducts policy surveillance.

The study dovetails with the work of GW Law’s Health Equity Policy and Advocacy Clinic, which Benfer directs. The eight law students in the clinic are a part of the legal arm of Bread for the City’s medical-legal partnership, which provides holistic medical care to low-income patients whose health is adversely affected by substandard housing, food insecurity, and other social determinants.

"What’s exciting is the mixed methods approach. We’re employing policy surveillance, literature review, and qualitative methods that will allow us to propose a research framework for researchers interested in eviction law and policy and access to justice themes across the country."

Emily Benfer
Associate Professor of Clinical Law

Students in the clinic have worked with a patient undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer who was forced to recover in an apartment with mold and unreliable hot water, and with a Spanish-speaking patient, diagnosed with dementia, who exhibited anxiety and disorientation related to her housing situation. The legal advocacy provided by the clinic resulted in a safe place to heal for one client and the preservation of the family unit for another.

This semester, students in the clinic are also representing the National Housing Law Project, which is advancing housing justice for poor people through a campaign around tenant rights and protections related to health outcomes and lead poisoning prevention. Benfer said the clinic is on track this spring to welcome Milken Institute School of Public Health students to the policy teams where they will work with law students.

The new Health Law and Policy Program also will bring students exciting interdisciplinary study opportunities. Dr. Laura Richman, associate professor of social science and health law and GW Law’s lone non-JD faculty member, examines social factors that contribute to health disparities for disadvantaged groups. She brings expertise in medical-legal partnerships and community-based health care delivery to the program. She is teaching a course on health reform and, in the spring, will co-teach a course with Matthew on public health law.

“I bring the social sciences to the study of how laws and policies affect health,” Richman said. “My hope is that I’ll be able to bring together colleagues at the Milken School and the School of Medicine as well as other departments across GW who have a shared interest in the broad area of health law. We have several events planned for the upcoming year that will give us opportunities to work together.”

Richman joins GW from Duke University, and Matthew said she adds rigor to the school’s social science, data analysis, and legal epidemiology capability.

Associate Professor of Law Sarah Polcz, who joined the faculty this fall from Stanford University where she was a fellow in the Center for Law and Biosciences, works closely with Suter’s area of the program. Polcz’s interests include bioethics, the emergence of new biotechnologies and their regulation, and policy connected to genetic engineering.

“The people involved in the GW Health Law and Policy Program are giants in the health law field, and I was excited by the prospect of joining them,” Polcz said. “Laura Richman, who has just joined the school, has done impressive work designing health interventions using the tools of social science. And I have long been inspired by the compelling perspectives Sonia Suter and Barak Richman bring to questions of shared interest.”

Polcz is known for her work in the area of genetic modification technologies, including in sports, which is often an early adopter of technology. Much of this work has focused on CRISPR/Cas9, a low-cost gene-editing technology that may hold potential to treat genetic disorders, infectious diseases such as HIV, and even cancers. Because of the technology component of her work, Polcz’s expertise will also be tapped by GW Law’s new Center for Law and Technology.

Professors Sonia Suter and Barak Richman smiling together
Professors Sonia Suter and Barak Richman, the co-directors of GW Law’s new Health Law and Policy Program

Polcz’s research stresses the importance of broad public engagement in the development of policy on emerging biotechnology, which may also carry unintended consequences. “Public deliberation ought to be central to the policymaking process for game-changing biotechnologies,” she said.

Finally, the GW Health Law and Policy Program will offer exciting, hands-on experiential learning opportunities through the health law clinics. One of GW Law’s legal clinics, the Vaccine Injury Litigation Clinic—the first of its kind when it opened nearly 40 years ago to assist families of children and adults seeking compensation for vaccine-related injuries and deaths—is part of the new Health Law and Policy Program. The clinic is led by injury litigator Renée Gentry, a professorial lecturer in law who also teaches disability rights law.

The policy area of the Health Law and Policy Program is enriched by the work of the GW Health Law Clinic, where student attorneys advocate on behalf of patients on public assistance in the District of Columbia and partner with caseworkers and psychiatrists on mental health care cases. The clinic is led by Visiting Associate Professor of Clinical Law Drake Hagner, an expert in Medicaid and other publicly funded medical assistance programs. Her recent research has focused on failures in the COVID-19 benefits programs.

The program is distinctive for its consideration of community level health and individuals’ experiences, rather than solely the work of health care delivery and institutions.

Emily Benfer standing and smiling at a podium onstage
Associate Professor of Clinical Law Emily Benfer

“We have a critical mass of expertise on our faculty, and we’re opening a much fuller range of courses and providing education through both clinics and podium classes,” said Suter. “Our location is unbelievable for studying health law and policy—we have the government, two states and the District of Columbia, law firms, and think tanks. And we have the academic resources to grow.”

She said GW Law has long offered classes that anchor traditional health law programs, including FDA law, disability rights law, elder law, and seminars on medical fraud and abuse. “But we’ve made a more concerted effort in the last few years to add certain classes, such as antitrust in the health care sector, a course on managed care, and a course on vaccines and preventive services law, to build out the curriculum,” she explained.

The law school also has longstanding collaborations with the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. Since 1982, GW Law and the School of Public Health have offered a joint Master of Public Health and JD program, a joint Master of Public Health and LLM degree, and JD and LLM degrees with a School of Public Health certificate. The two schools collaborate on health law research.

Another important piece of the new Health Law and Policy Program is the three-year-old Kahan Health/FDA Law Fellowship, which currently supports three second-year law students and three third-year law students. The fellows help plan health law symposia and assist with a distinguished speaker series that featured former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2022. The speaker series will bring Dr. Anthony Fauci to GW Law on March 20, 2024.

The Kahan Health fellows also mentor students interested in careers in health law and are involved in an annual health expo that connects students with practitioners in the field.

Suter said GW Law students are coming to understand the role that law plays in supporting a healthy nation. “When I teach health law, it’s not a bar class. It’s not constitutional law. It is the most personal class you take in your life,” she said. “Health affects everybody. That’s why I think this is such an important discipline.”

Matthew envisions the Health Law and Policy Program growing into a juggernaut in informing domestic health law policy. “We aim to establish ourselves as a Top 10 program—and then rise even higher,” she said.