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Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

According to Schweitzer Fellow Rebecca Zeidel, mental health parity laws – which require health plans that provide mental health benefits to cover mental and behavioral health services at equal levels to medical and surgical benefits – go a long way towards ensuring that people have equal access to physical and mental health services.

But people in need are still falling through the cracks, encountering barriers when they attempt to access the mental health services available to them.

That’s why, for her Schweitzer project, this Boston College Law School student is partnering with Health Law Advocates to bolster its efforts to find and assist clients who are living with mental or behavioral health conditions, and are having trouble accessing the care they need.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Last August, on the morning of my first day of law school, I wrote in my journal, “I am going to try not to be too nervous … I feel inspired to be starting law school with Sen. Ted Kennedy’s charge that ‘the work goes on’… it is up to others to continue that work.”  Senator Kennedy had passed away just six days before. The weekend had been rainy and somber, as my family had spent much of it following the news coverage of memorial services for the Senator.

I remain inspired by Senator Kennedy’s commitment to public service and to advocating for better health care for all Americans, and I am interested in health care law and improving health by enhancing patients’ access to health care services they need. This summer, I am working at Health Law Advocates (HLA), a public interest law firm that provides pro bono legal representation to lower income Massachusetts residents who are having difficulty accessing needed medical services.

I developed my particular Schweitzer project because I wanted to work with HLA to address disparities in access to health care. My project aims to advance HLA’s initiative to identify and assist clients with mental or behavioral health conditions who are having difficulty accessing health care services.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I hope that my project will help HLA to identify clients facing difficulties accessing mental health services and assist clients in appealing denials of services. I hope that my project will help patients to obtain the medically necessary health care services they need.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I think access to health care services on a national level is one of the most pressing issues of our time. In many ways, our current national system focuses on emergency care – for someone without insurance, the emergency room can be the only health care option. We need to shift the emphasis from emergency to preventative care and maintaining overall health.

With the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in March, the U.S. has made enormous strides in improving access to health care. Much of my work this summer has been focused on helping people gain access to health care services provided by their health plans. A huge challenge for many clients is in navigating the health insurance system itself. I think a big piece of national health care reform will also be educational, so that people learn what benefits they have and can use them more effectively.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

I think one of the more surprising parts of my project implementation has been confronting limits and knowing when I can’t do anything to help, or figuring out the extent of my role.  Sometimes, there is nothing we can do in a particular case, and that can be very discouraging.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow for me is an incredible opportunity to serve as part of a community of committed individuals across disciplines working to enhance the health of low-income people, to reduce health disparities and address unmet health needs.

In working with clients at HLA, I am learning that often it can take a team of people across disciplines to help a client to access the health care services he or she needs, or to help a child and his or her care team in one of HLA’s guardian ad litem appointments to identify and follow through on an effective plan.

As the only law student among the Boston Schweitzer Fellows, I feel so lucky to work with and learn from the other Fellows, and to be part of a “team in service” with them.

I hope that I can give back to this community by sharing what I have learned about health insurance in Massachusetts in general and mental health parity laws in particular to help the other Boston Schweitzer Fellows access advocacy resources that may be helpful for their patients.

Rebecca Zeidel is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Zeidel it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Zeidel’s efforts to reduce mental health disparities, click here.

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