July 13, 2011

Students to gain health law and policy experience

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Third-year students in the Southern Illinois University School of Law now have the opportunity to learn about health law and policy while gaining practical experience within their fields of interest.

The law school’s nationally ranked Center for Health Law and Policy will offer the “Semester Away” program beginning this fall. The program allows students to move beyond legal theory and enables them to put practical applications in place. The program follows the law school’s two other “Semester Away” opportunities in Criminal Trial Practice and Law and Government, which began during the 2009-2010 school year.

The program gives participating students a “solid foundation” as they begin their legal careers, said Professor W. Eugene Basanta, the Southern Illinois Healthcare Professor of Law.

“This kind of program is just part of our ongoing efforts to expand experiential learning opportunities for our students,” he said. “The nature of law school and law practice is changing and we need to offer students more than classroom experience. We like to turn out graduates who are ‘practice ready’.”

Third-year law students Brad Evetts of Granite City and Josh Waltrip of Owensboro, Ky., will spend the fall semester in Springfield. Evetts will work in the legal counsel’s office with the Illinois Department of Aging; Waltrip will work with legal counsel at both the SIU School of Medicine and Memorial Medical Center.

Michele Mekel, an assistant professor who is also with the Center for Health Law and Policy, will oversee the students’ participation. Along with the externship, Evetts and Waltrip will take a public health law class in Springfield taught by Ross Silverman, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Humanities at the SIU School of Medicine, along with a bioethics class that Mekel will teach in Springfield and in Carbondale through distance learning.

Mekel will regularly travel to Springfield to meet with Evetts, Waltrip, and their supervisors. In addition to the externship and classes, students in the rigorous for-credit program will also keep a daily journal, participate in regular roundtable discussions with Mekel, and write a final summary.

“There will be a lot of day-to-day oversight throughout the semester,” Mekel said. “They will be overseen in perhaps a more direct way than students in regular courses.”

Students earn credit for participating and cannot receive pay under American Bar Association standards.

Working with the Illinois Department on Aging is an opportunity Evetts said he could not pass up. With interests in patient and consumer advocacy, Evetts said the program will “provide experiences impossible to obtain or recreate in a traditional classroom setting.”

Evetts attended last week’s Illinois Department on Aging annual Elder Rights Conference in Chicago.

“Health law is an important field as a person’s individual health, well-being and access to care greatly influence their quality of life,” he said. “I expect that what I will learn, not only about the law but about government agencies and their administration, will greatly shape my education and work after school.”

For now, the Semester Away program will be offered by the Center for Health Law and Policy only in the fall, Basanta said. The health law program recently ranked No. 19 in the country in U.S. News & World Report specialty rankings for law schools.

“I’m very pleased that our semester away programs have expanded to include this opportunity for students who are interested in health law and policy,” said Cynthia L. Fountaine, law school dean. “The program is a natural extension of our partnership with the SIU School of Medicine, and it allows us to continue to develop the relationships that we have established with attorneys at health care agencies and associations in Springfield. This is a historically significant time for our students to be immersed in an environment where health law and policy issues are being debated and shaped. I hope and expect to see many of them take advantage of the opportunity.”

Based upon previous semester away program results, successful externs often have the opportunity to later work for the agency they are involved with, Basanta said. It also gives students the opportunity to network with other professionals in the field and build upon their resume, he said.

The goal is to match a student’s interests with a particular employer in that area from state agencies, hospital associations and medical societies, and to help students identify opportunities that fit their individual interests, Basanta said.

“We try and spend a lot of time creating an opportunity for a student that will get them the best experience available,” he said.

Evetts and Waltrip are both members of “The Journal of Legal Medicine,” an academic honor and opportunity given to students who excel in law school, Mekel said.

“This will be a tremendous capstone opportunity for these third-year students and make them practice-ready in an area that they are excited about,” she said.