Promoting public health through the law: A Q&A with NY state counsel Deborah Beth Medows

Deborah Beth Medows has spent over a decade as a public health law influencer for the state of New York, first drafting health laws for the State Legislature, then advising on their implementation and now upholding them as a litigator.

She was involved in the state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and drafted legislation granting insurance to pregnant women after the period of enrollment closed in the New York State Health Insurance Exchange.

As a top Medicaid lawyer to the state’s public health agency, she advised its decisions on eligibility, long-term care, nursing home transitions and traumatic brain injury.

Now she prosecutes healthcare-related matters for the state, delivers CLEs and writes advice for budding lawyers.

While she serves as a senior attorney in health law for New York State, she shares these thoughts solely in her personal capacity. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Deborah Beth Medows HeadshotDeborah Beth Medows HeadshotHow did your experience working in Albany inform your legal practice?

My experiences have taught me how comprehensive the field of law can be and the different roles that lawyers can play in the legislative process.

I’ve met with stakeholders, drafted bills, advised on the constitutionality of proposed legislation on the voting floor, and even received an email from a stranger who had called for help and later thanked me for changing his life.

Working at the Legislature taught me about a variety of topics in a rapid-pace environment. I learned not to be afraid to ask questions with respectful assertiveness.

Once, while drafting legislation, I noticed a glaring omission from what I was asked to draft, whose consequences would have affected vulnerable people. I called a staffer for one of the bill’s sponsors, who was convinced that the omission reflected the sponsor’s legislative intent. However, upon my request, he consulted the legislator, who was shocked and explained that it was, indeed, an oversight.

As a young lawyer starting out, I also learned the importance for a lawyer to contextualize the scope of his or her role.

As a bill drafter, I was there to draft legislation and advise on the constitutionality of the proposed legislation, rather than to opine on whether I personally agreed with it. I drafted both for the Senate and the Assembly, regardless of party. People elect legislators, not myself, to create laws.

Working on a bipartisan commission, as well as later interacting on a daily basis with my colleagues from both parties taught me the importance of finding common ground.

When you are both scrambling to purchase food from a vending machine at midnight — since every place nearby is closed and takeout is not an option — and you break a five dollar bill for your counterpart from the office next door because neither one of you had a chance to grab dinner, that is not the time to debate political affiliations. Humanity comes first.

As someone passionate about mentoring earlier-stage lawyers, what are three pieces of advice you commonly give?

Work hard. Law requires not only intelligence, but conscientiousness and persistence.

My friends considered it glamorous that I advised legislators on legislation on the voting floor and, in fact, it was exciting to be a part of the lawmaking process. However, what they didn’t see was the hard work behind the scenes, such as often staying at work past midnight and storing an extra toothbrush in my office.

Respect those on your team, treat everyone with courteousness, act professionally with your opposing counsel, and find a mentor.

As lawyers, we need to have the humility to remember that we can learn something from everyone we encounter. Don’t let your ego get in the way of success. I worked with a chief counsel who would personally answer the phone when the secretary was busy, because he knew that the bottom line was getting the job done.

Broaden your horizons. There are many fields of law and opportunities out there that you may not have considered.

If your career options are not exactly what you imagined, you can still leverage the knowledge you gain along the way and build a unique skill set that makes you a better candidate for a future position.

I took a course in trial advocacy upon the advice of a mentor and never thought I’d need it because cases so rarely go to trial. Now that I prosecute cases regularly, I find myself revisiting those lessons and using them in an everyday context.

One issue of importance to me has always been addressing the attrition of women in the profession. I want to make it a profession that encourages the voices of women.

I mentor law students and early-career lawyers both through BU Law’s 1L mentoring program and through the power of the pen.

What did your experience as a Foreign Law Clerk in Israel bring to your practice, back at home?

The United States’ system includes the legal theory of American exceptionalism, so we don’t take international and comparative law into account in the manner that Israel does in jurisprudence.

It was wonderful to interact with clerks from a different culture and portray what it means to be an American through getting to know them and discussing the American legal system with them. I was really impressed with how much the Justices care about human rights and the rule of law.

There was a case in which I observed a public legal proceeding against a famous politician, and one of the Justices made the point along the lines of: “the higher you go, the harder you fall — the law treats everyone equally.” Accountability applies to everybody, which is how democracy should work.

I also had an experience at a post office that I will never forget, standing in line in front of a retired Supreme Court Justice. I asked her to please go ahead of me, and she insisted on waiting behind me and spoke to me passionately about democracy and equality.

Today, inspired by that experience, I evaluate legal scholars applying for Fulbright programs abroad. I want to share the values of democracy and equality. For all the issues our country grapples with, and every country has its own, we have a country that values human rights and the rule of law.

How has COVID-19 impacted you, personally? What lessons should we take from this pandemic and apply to our life and work moving forward?

I am so grateful to, and impressed by, the hard-working people who developed the vaccines, hospital staff, and first responders. As a New Yorker, I’ve lost count of how many people I know who have died from Covid-19.

It concerns me how many of my friends don’t take this pandemic as seriously as they should — not wearing masks or attending large weddings. A lot of people think of their personal responses to the pandemic as being an individual choice, but do not focus on the negative externalities of those choices. If we’re all in a boat and someone drills one hole, it may be his or her personal choice, but we’re all going to sink together.

My father was an Air Force officer after he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam Conflict and my maternal grandfather was deployed by the United States Army to fight in Europe during World War II. They served their country. The least we can do to protect our country is wash our hands, avoid indoor social gatherings when possible, wear a mask, and follow medical guidance.

I learned a lot about resilience and gratitude during the pandemic. I feel very badly for friends who have lost parents and grandparents. The experiences that we all faced during this pandemic really puts the impact of public health in people’s daily lives in perspective. It can be a time of growth and reflection, despite the extreme tragedy.

Many of us have realized that before the pandemic we spent time on things that in retrospect were not important to us, and we have reflected on what truly matters, which is our connections with our families, neighbors and friends.

What do you love most about health law?

Health law is dynamic! The field encompasses issues of pandemic response, data privacy, healthcare financing, medical misconduct, end-of-life questions, and health insurance eligibility, just to name a few areas.

There are real-world results. There is always something new to teach and to learn. And finally, as we have been reminded by Covid-19, public health affects each one of us on the planet.

Featured Photo: fstop123, Getty Images

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