On October 29, 2021, student volunteers from Rutgers Law School Camden’s Disability Law Student Association partnered with lawyers from Disability Rights New Jersey, during the inaugural session of the Public Insurance Appeals Program, to assist community members in understanding if and how their Medicaid eligibility has changed over the course of the pandemic so far.
To understand the impact this program had, it’s important to understand how someone’s disability can impact their financial situation. While data from 2019 surveys from the United States Census Bureau show that over 41 million or roughly 12% of Americans have a disability, the disabled population was 72.7% unemployed compared to only 35.7% of their able-bodied counterparts and earned a median of $25,000 to their able-bodied counterparts’ $37,000.
To make matters worse, on average, a single adult with a disability required 36% more income to achieve the same standard of living as their able-bodied counterparts and married adults with disabilities required 27% more income than their able-bodied counterparts, as found by researchers at Stony Brook University, the University of Tennessee, National Disability Institute, and the Oxford Institute of Population Aging in their 2020 study titled “The Extra Costs Associated with Living with a Disability in the United States.”
The researchers divided these costs into direct costs, such as health care and personal assistance services, and indirect costs, which are more abstract and cover expenses such as foregone earnings due to barriers to work or of family members that serve as caretakers, while acknowledging that both categories of expenses vary based on both the individual and their impairment. To some extent, not only does the Federal Government recognize the problem the American disabled population faces through programs initiated in the Social Security Act, such as Medicare and Medicaid, but New Jersey goes even further with multiple “doors” to qualifying for government assistance.
These programs provide vital services to individuals with disabilities that are often not even offered or covered through other health insurance providers, such as home healthcare aids. Qualification for these programs relies not only on one’s impairment but also on their, or their family members', work statuses and incomes. While freezes have been mandated to keep anyone from losing their health insurance during the pandemic, for many, a lot has changed since the pandemic started in 2019 and many are worried about the potential impending loss of vital healthcare services.
Through the Public Insurance Appeal Program created as a joint effort between Disability Rights New Jersey and Rutgers Law School’s Disability Law Student Association, Rutgers Law Students sat down, virtually, with real clients who had questions about their Medicaid eligibility status. Before the day of the event, student volunteers spent two Saturdays on campus learning about the different paths to Medicaid eligibility and working through scenarios to prepare.
On the day of the event, students and clients worked through an interview packet created by Michael Brower, the legal director of Disability Rights New Jersey, to review recent life events that may affect their Medicaid status. After consulting with one of the supervising attorneys from Disability Rights New Jersey, the students explained to the client whether their status has changed (and why) and what some of their options would be for further information and assistance to avoid a gap in coverage when the freeze is lifted.
The last couple years, I had been working with a group of students to create an affinity organization at the law school for students who identify as disabled to advocate for ourselves and each other and educate our classmates and law school community, so we can all be more accessible and empathetic lawyers. Kelly Monahan and I were in many of the same classes our first year of law school and while my interests in disability law originated with my own identity as a disabled law student, Kelly has experience from her former career and an interest in working with students and youth who have disabilities.
Knowing I was involved in getting an advocacy group together and my involvement in several other programs on campus, Kelly had reached out to see if we could work together to create a program that would allow us to work with the surrounding Rutgers Camden community in the disability law area. Together, with Dean Jill Friedman, we reached out to Disability Rights New Jersey who told us of the ongoing Medicaid eligibility dilemma and who created and provided all the training for the program.
Participation in this project was completely voluntary but limited as this was our first time running this program and we wanted to start small. While half of the student volunteers belonged to the Disability Law Student Association executive board, the rest were simply students who had expressed interest in volunteering with the program and willing to give up some of their free time to help. Throughout the training and on the day of the event, we had the pleasure of working with Mr. Brower and Gwen Orlowski, the executive director of Disability Rights New Jersey, who did an incredible job breaking down one of the most complicated areas of law (insurance law) and teaching us interviewing skills we’ll be able to use for years to come, even if we do not end up in the health insurance sector.
Two of the great greatest aspects of Rutgers’ pro bono programs is their ability to introduce students to areas of the law they may have never even thought of or known about before volunteering and their ability to introduce students to practicing attorneys. As for that second feature, for students who are more introverted like myself, volunteer projects that allow students to work alongside practicing attorneys can be a great networking alternative to mixers and happy hours.
Beyond our pro bono efforts, the Disability Law Student Association hosted an extended session with the Office of Accommodations where students could attend anonymously and not only get an overview of the process required when requesting accommodations but could also ask any questions they had been scared to ask otherwise. This spring, we are hoping to hold a series that will help answer student concerns about applying for Bar admission such as how to start the process for requesting accommodations on the bar exam as well as how to answer intrusive character and fitness questions that edge into criminal and medical history inquiries without being perceived as evasive or deceptive. We also have an active Instagram account (@DLSA.RutgersCamden) were we post both original and shared content with the aim to create a more socially aware community both through education regarding the disabled experience as well as current events regarding disability rights.