Some of the biggest contributors to the growth and success of community health centers have been people who never actually worked for a health center.
Take Jacki Leiffer, for example, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., law firm Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP. Her story begins back in 1977, when she was a young attorney working in a federal agency then known as the Health, Education and Welfare Department (now called Health and Human Services). As a legal advisor to the office within that agency that oversaw health centers, Leiffer became familiar with the centers and with the various laws and regulations affecting them.
When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, a different approach to the role of the government was ushered in. The approach was generally to give the states more power over a wide variety of federal functions – including health care – through block grants that states could use as they wished.
“Everyone knew that the states weren’t going to invest big money into health care and wouldn’t make health centers a priority,” Leiffer explained. With centers across the country eager to challenge the changes, she soon found herself drawn into the fight. Leiffer left her government job to work for Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, which at the time was the nation’s leading law firm with regard to block grant law.
Leiffer led the legal battle that eventually resulted in the block grants being enacted, but with a variety of conditions designed to protect community health centers. Only one state ended up taking the block grant and health centers remained a federal function, helping to ensure their continued funding and continued growth.
The child of a community doctor and a nurse, Leiffer quickly found her work with community health centers meaningful and rewarding. “This was as close as I had ever hoped to get to doing God’s work,” she said, recalling her feelings at the time.
Her appreciation for the centers has not diminished. “Community health centers are absolutely one of the most extraordinary opportunities in terms of meeting the needs of the communities they serve,” Leiffer said. “I go home every night and say thanks. No other lawyer is having half as much fun as I’m having.”
Leiffer is not only general counsel to the National Association of Community Health Centers, but she represents health centers around the country in litigation, provides tool kits and other assistance to the centers, and advises them on compliance with the various laws and regulations under which they must operate. Ensuring that centers comply with and fully take advantage of the Affordable Care Act has added another level of complexity to her job.
“No two days are the same. …It’s incredibly rewarding,” she said.
Married for 38 years, Leiffer lives in Maryland outside Washington, D.C., with her “fabulous” husband. Her two “fabulous” sons are grown; one is a CPA and the other is a research assistant with the GW Center for Health Policy Research.