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Advocating for health care

Sara V. Pic, Rappaport Fellow in Law and Public Policy, Summer 2004
by Jane Whitehead

Sara PicFour blocks from Sara Pic’s house in New Orleans is a former hospital building, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005. It has been a constant reminder of the devastated infrastructure that Pic returned to her hometown in 2007 to help rebuild. Since February 2010, Pic, a graduate of Smith College and Northeastern University School of Law, has served as Litigation Director for Health Law Advocates of Louisiana, a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to improving access to health care services for the state’s middle- and low-income residents.

“What I’m doing now absolutely connects right back to my Rappaport Fellowship,” said Pic, whose fellowship in summer 2004 enabled her to work on immigrants’ rights issues at the Boston-based Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI). There, she found a mentor and role model in Iris Gomez, a nationally recognized expert on asylum and immigration law, and director of MLRI’s Immigrants’ Protection Project. “Iris was so thorough and so compassionate,” said Pic, and “she kept a really positive attitude, even when we suffered defeat – which is frequent in immigration cases.”

Gomez also inspired Pic with her achievements as an award-winning poet and novelist. “She really is someone I still look up to,” said Pic, who aspires to balance her own work as a lawyer with her ambitions as a writer. Her choice of law as a career “wasn’t obvious at all,” said Pic. Having studied creative writing at a specialist arts high school, she had always imagined she would have “some kind of career in the creative arts,” she said. She regularly publishes essays in magazines and journals, contributes a monthly column on independent theater to Antigravity, a New Orleans art and culture magazine, and plans to sign up for a part time MFA program in writing.

Pic’s apprenticeship with Gomez on immigrants’ rights to health care led directly to a post-graduate fellowship with Boston-based Health Law Advocates (HLA.) She worked on a project to improve immigrants’ access to mental health care in Worcester County, connecting with the area’s Puerto Rican, Cambodian and Vietnamese communities and with legal and health-care professionals to identify and mitigate cultural and linguistic barriers to effective care. Following the fellowship, HLA hired Pic to work on a class action related to oral health.

“I really loved my job in Boston, but my heart was back here,” said Pic of her move back to New Orleans in March 2007. At that point, she said, she would have taken any job that enabled her to be close to friends and family. In fact, she found a niche well suited to her background, as an attorney with the Mental Health Advocacy Service, representing emotionally disturbed children in foster care. “Funny how these things connect,” said Pic. “I’d worked on immigrant health, which led to immigrant mental health, which led to child mental health.”

In 2007, S. Stephen Rosenfeld, founder and volunteer legal services director of HLA Boston, visited and fell in love with New Orleans. He and Pic worked together on a class action lawsuit to reopen the city’s major public hospital, and when Rosenfeld decided to open a Louisiana branch of Health Law Advocates in New Orleans, closely modeled on the Boston original, Pic was one of the few lawyers in the state with the precise skill set required for the role of litigation director.

Pic’s current workload splits roughly into three parts; direct work with clients, policy development, and community education and outreach, including teaching aspects of health law to student interns. Medical debt – the nation’s number one reason for bankruptcy – is a relentless stressor for many of her clients. Among the hundreds of cases she has handled over the last few years, some stand out, like the college student in Baton Rouge who faced medical bills of $50,000 after being mugged and shot, of which the Crimes Victims Fund only met $10,000. With the help of an intern, Pic managed to persuade all the providers to discharge the debt. “That was great. It’s what lawyers do well – negotiation,” she said.

Pic still works with emotionally disturbed children in foster care, and recently persuaded a judge to require the state to consider providing dental braces for a client – an apparently small matter, compared with discharging thousands of dollars of debt, but a “big self-esteem issue” for a vulnerable teenager.

Four years after coming home, Pic feels optimistic about the rebirth of New Orleans. Developers recently bought up the abandoned hospital in her neighborhood, with plans to re-open it as a dual-purpose nursing home and hospital. “The city is slowly progressing back to looking like a city again, and not like a war zone,” she said.

Find out more about the Rappaport Fellowship in Law and Public Policy.


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