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Monday, February 6, 2017

From Law to Public Health

Watching the work of a television character sparked a dream years ago for a little girl growing up in Lebanon, Ohio. “I wanted to be Matlock,” said Christina Juris Bennett, J.D.  It’s been years since  Bennett, now assistant professor and director of the Masters of Health Administration program at the OU College of Public Health, first set her sights on a future in law. The public’s health wasn’t on her radar screen when she headed off to college. “My dad is an attorney and an adjunct professor, and I came from a family of professors. On my mom’s side, it was engineering and chemistry,” she said. Bennett earned her undergraduate degree in math from Vanderbilt, minoring in geology and women’s studies. Then she headed off to law school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a degree in law. She dove into a career in law, first clerking for a criminal appellate judge, dealing with death penalty and child sexual assault cases. The work was difficult, but nothing compared to what  lay ahead of her.

“It was during the last six months of my clerkship that my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer. So I began taking time to care for her in Ohio each month. She died just nine months later. I  remember being astounded. I was an attorney. My dad was an attorney. We had really good insurance, and it was still so confusing,” Bennett said. The experience definitely impacted Bennett, as did a
subsequent dip in the job market for attorneys. “I took a job at a small firm doing work I despised, but I got to meet people who had their lives totally disrupted by health care,” she said. Bennett left that job and serendipity stepped in that very night when she attended her first meeting for a committee at her church. “Then someone I didn’t know introduced himself as a professor and said, ‘I have this  idea for a book. If you will write it, I will guide you.’ So he guided me and I wrote a book,” Bennett said. Ten months later, TennCare, One State’s Experiment with Medicaid Expansion was completed. The book, published by Vanderbilt Press, provides historical perspective on TennCare, one of the oldest, most hotly debated experiments in U.S. Health Care Policy. TennCare was a reform initiative in  Tennessee designed to increase the number of residents with health insurance while at the same time curtailing costs. In the book, Bennett details the struggle among competing stakeholders (the state, managed care organizations, providers, enrollees and their advocates) and tracks the pressure brought to bear on state leaders when TennCare strategies negatively impacted stakeholders’
interests. The book moved Bennett from the world of law into the world of academics. It also taught her important lessons.

“I would have never thought that the people working for state government cared as much as they did for the enrollees,” she said. “There are thousands and thousands, actually 1.4 million, why would  they care about each person? But they really do. The individual stories of enrollees really stuck with them. I never expected that.” It was an experience that taught her much about the impact of public health policy on individuals, and it motivated her to want to be part of a system that educated the next generation of public health professionals. Today, she finds few things more rewarding than  teaching, helping students at the OU College of Public Health and the OU College of Law grasp the complexities of health care. “I’m a bit of a Pollyanna. I really believe we can make our health care system better and serve the people who need us better,” Bennett said. “And when we make progress toward that, it’s all worth it.”

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