Affordable Care Act lifts area law firms
By MATT CHANDLER
[email protected] | 716-541-1654
Whether you call it health-care reform, Obamacare or its formal name, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, area law firms are calling the new national laws one thing - good for business.
When President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in March 2010, one thing was certain - there was a lot of uncertainty. Businesses were unsure about what they had to do to be compliant and, thanks to the staggered implementation of various facets, were unsure even when they had to act. There were questions about what parts of the new law applied to them and, in some cases, if it was better to forgo certain rules and pay the penalties. That heightened the need for lawyers specializing in health law, and what had been a robust practice for many law firms grew even stronger.
Scott Carroll was a health-care attorney in Washington, D.C., who later came to Buffalo to work for BlueCross BlueShield and, subsequently, Palladian Health. He was recruited to join Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP as leader of the health-care practice in response to the legislative changes.
"With the passage of the law in 2010, the firm was committed to expanding its presence in the health-care legal market," Carroll said, "and part of that was wanting to be responsive to the growing needs of its clients."
He joined Lippes Mathias in November 2010, joining other Western New York legal professionals who were part of the hiring boon that followed the enactment of what is commonly known as the Affordable Care Act. Along with partner Scott Friedman, the health-care practice consists of two other professionals recently hired.
"One has an engineering background and another has a life sciences background," Carroll said. "So that allows us to expand and be able to focus on those segments, as well."
The growth of the practice goes beyond helping clients answer such questions as how and when, he said. Indeed, many clients - including health-care providers - view the legislative changes as an opportunity to grow their operations and they seek legal guidance in doing so.
"We have a number of clients who are looking to take advantage of the new opportunities that come with these changes, including expanding into new markets and reshaping their businesses," Carroll said.
For example, he is working with retail urgent-care physician practices and patient transportation companies to expand the retail medicine business both statewide and nationally.
Though 2013 is a relatively quiet year in terms of new regulations - many employers are bracing for the big push in January 2014 - Carroll said he still expects the coming year to be one of robust growth for the health-care practice.
"In terms of calls from clients about compliance and making sure they are prepared, those are going up and we expect them to continue to increase," he said. "Between now and 2014, I would expect that we would see a large amount of transactional activity for some of these collaborative efforts to create partnerships between health-care providers. We have worked on a few of these deals, but I think we are really on the front end of what is to come."
Justin Runke, meanwhile, is a partner in the health-care practice group at Harris Beach PLLC. He said the firm has seen a spike in business tied to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Harris Beach has 34 attorneys who touch on health-care issues, he added, with approximately half of them devoted full time to health law.
"While our health-care practice is certainly growing, I'm hesitant to say it is all related to the Affordable Care Act," Runke said. "But certainly over the last three years we have seen steady growth in compliance and then with the affiliation and merger side of the business, which has grown transactional work as a whole."
Runke said the health-care system was "evolving," even before the new law was passed.
"We have always taken the position that the health-care industry is changing, with or without Obamacare," he said. "And that was what really initially necessitated our growth."
Like Carroll, Runke said he also sees concern among his clients in terms of compliance.
"That concern is driven by the fact that the health-care bill isn't truly understood yet," he said. "And it can't be truly understood because all of the regulations have not been implemented and worked out yet."
There is another element of the new rules that could lead to more work for area lawyers - defense. For every client who fails to comply with a provision of the health-care law, there will need to be a defense. Some say that could boost business, as well.
"That will certainly be part of what we do, and it is part of what we do now," Runke said. "Health care, by necessity, is a highly regulated industry - and it was even before these changes. So that has always been a part of what we do."
At Damon Morey in Buffalo, partner Susan Benz said the law firm employs the area's largest health-care practice group.
"Right now, 80 cents of every dollar spent on health care comes from either the federal or state government," she said. "It's almost 20 percent of the GNP, so because of that, it just generates a lot of work and has, even before the Affordable Care Act."
Damon Morey took a proactive rather than reactive approach to the forthcoming legislation, she added.
"We have been in an upward growth mode for several years. We have been hiring accordingly as the years have demanded additional staffing to meet our clients' needs," Benz said.
She expects further growth in the industry and said her firm will continue to address that growth by hiring not just attorneys but legal support professionals, as well.