The coronavirus crisis highlights the need to strengthen health systems, and lawyers will play a crucial role. In the short-term, they are drafting emergency legislation to reduce transmission, and are negotiating agreements to fast-track vaccines.
Longer-term, they might help prevent pandemics, for instance through creating laws to potentially finance and govern universal access to healthcare.
“Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, studying and practicing health law has never been more relevant or impactful,” says Sarah Roache, director of Georgetown Law’s Health Law LL.M. programs.
Such courses are growing in number around the world as countries try to stem the spread of Covid-19 and mitigate the fallout.
Georgetown Law, in Washington DC, has an extensive health law curriculum that includes more than 40 courses covering everything from mental health law to bioethics — to say nothing of the extracurricular activities put on by the school’s O’Neil Institute for National and Global Health Law. At the think-tank, students can work as research assistants, helping to form legal, regulatory and policy responses to public health challenges.
“The coronavirus pandemic has focused the public’s attention on a range of pressing policy issues – access to affordable care, racial and socioeconomic disparities in health, and financial instability among healthcare providers,” says Michael Ewer, director for the Health Law LL.M. program at University of Houston Law Center in Texas.
“Solving these critical issues requires not only a deep understanding of the law, but also the ability to foresee potential trade-offs between policy options,” Ewer adds.
“Because lawyers trained in health law and policy have these skills, they will play an essential role in shaping the solutions to these problems.”
His program emphasizes interdisciplinary studies and attracts students from all manner of backgrounds, not just lawyers. Little wonder: their job prospects look bright in a sector that accounts for a fifth of the US economy, a figure expected to grow because of the pandemic.
Pandemic creating need for expertise in healthcare compliance, other areas
Beyond the policy realm, Covid-19 will expand the need for expertise in healthcare compliance, privacy, risk management and regulation, says Jessica Mantel, co-director at Houston Law’s Health Law and Policy Institute.
“The demand for health law expertise will not go away once the crisis subsides,” she says. “The financial squeeze facing physician groups and hospitals that have seen a decline in elective procedures will lead many to join larger healthcare systems, creating transactional work for health lawyers.”
She adds that a tide of upcoming regulatory changes will also likely raise demand, including closer scrutiny of nursing homes, the digital health market, Medicare payment rules, fraud and abuse laws. “All of this means lots of work for health lawyers as they advise policymakers and other clients.”
Employment law is another area seeing an uptick in demand due to coronavirus, says Diane Hoffmann, director of the Health Law LL.M. program at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law.
“Despite the economic downturn, there has been a significant demand for lawyers during the pandemic,” she says. “There are numerous questions being raised about workplace safety and whether workers must be accommodated and how.”
Elsewhere, lawyers will be needed to represent insurance firms and companies searching for regulatory approval for a new treatment or vaccine for Covid-19, says Hoffmann. “Lawyers will be involved in contract disputes,” she says. “While many courts have been closed, litigation is likely to pick up when they are fully operational.”
Amy Sanders, associate director of the Center for Health Law Studies at Saint Louis University School of Law in Missouri, notes that the most recent statistics from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that by 2028, there could be 3.4m new jobs created in healthcare and income support — sectors accounting for the largest share of expected job growth in America.
Healthcare LL.M.s look to make a positive impact on society
She says that, although LL.M. students have different goals, the common thread in her course is a desire to make a positive impact on society. “Whether working at a law firm, in-house, for the government or a nonprofit, I am always struck by how our alumni are motivated to improve access to, or delivery of healthcare,” says Sanders.
By way of example, Alexandra Mullock, director of the LL.M. in Healthcare Ethics and Law at the University of Manchester in the UK, notes that doctors making terribly difficult decisions, such as who to treat when there are limited intensive care beds, need legal and ethical guidance.
“The extreme challenges that have arisen in healthcare have made everyone more aware of the need to consider the difficult legal and ethical questions before a crisis occurs again,” she says.
“Healthcare lawyers will have a key role to play in the post-corona world: decision-making over resource allocation, advising on end of life issues, and decisions concerning withdrawal of treatment.”
This sentiment is echoed by Edward Dove, director of the Medical Law and Ethics LL.M. at Edinburgh Law School in Scotland, UK. “Students who come to Edinburgh want to make a positive impact in the world,” he says.
“The pandemic offers students a unique opportunity to apply the skills learned in our program to improve healthcare systems, our collective wellbeing, and prevent destructive pandemics from occurring again.”