Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

College of Law News

“To Me, That’s Unforgivable”

Allison Wils BA’08Allison Wils BA’08

“You’re scared the whole time because you just want to get the treatment for someone you love”

Third-year law student Allison Wils watched friends and family members guide their loved ones on a maddening journey through America’s health care system. She wants to change that.

Allison Wils BA’08 tears up when she talks about her Dutch ancestors: the grandfather who was imprisoned in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. The grandmother who was an opera singer in England before immigrating to the United States. Her grandfather and grandmother died of cancer a few years ago, and Wils says it was “heart-wrenching” to watch her father weigh financing for different treatment options so his parents’ extraordinary lives could end in peace.

“You’re scared the whole time because you just want to get the treatment for someone you love,” Wils says. “It still pulls all my heartstrings.”

Wils says her grandparents were lucky because her father, a nurse, was able to help them decipher the information from doctors, bankers and insurance companies. One of Wils’s friends wasn’t so fortunate; her grandmother developed bedsores because her caregiver didn’t move her often enough. “The family had no voice; they didn’t know any of the disciplinary proceedings,” Wils says. “To me, that’s unforgivable.”

Wils graduates from the College of Law this spring. She will be the first Willamette student to receive a Certificate in Law and Government with an emphasis in health policy. Wils is an extern at the Oregon Health Authority and clerks at the Oregon Department of Justice. She also is a student member of the health law section of the Oregon State Bar and was a Lilly Research Scholar. Medicine runs in her family; her aunts and uncles are doctors and nurses and her sister is a lab tech. W ils was raised on her dad’s stories of seeing patients sitting in hospital lobbies because they needed a warm place to sleep. They had colds that should have been treated by their primary care doctors, but they didn’t have the money for the co-pay.

As part of her externship with the Oregon Health Authority, Wils has immersed herself in the details of the Affordable Health Care Act, the federal health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law thr ee years ago. Wils calls it the equivalent of the feminist and civil rights movements of her parents’ era. “I hope people will start to see the good in it even if ideologically they’re opposed to it,” she says. “I really believe once people have coverage in times of great pain — and they’re able to get the care they need because they have insurance and they don’t have to go bankrupt — then people will realize how powerful it is.”

Wils, who also will earn a Certificate in Dispute Resolution, attended meetings and offered her insights during talks about how the Oregon Health Authority and the Indian Health Service should work together during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Although those negotiations had started before she joined, “she was quickly accepted as a contributing member,” says Bob DiPrete, a health policy analyst for the Oregon Health Authority. “What struck me is how quickly she understood the discussion and how gracefully she participated. All her questions and all her observations were on point.”

Jeremy Vandehey, former legislative director for the Oregon Health Authority, supervised Wils as she researched the idea of creating a loan repayment program for primary care providers who treat Medicaid recipients. “She was very smart, very bright, energetic,” he says. “She was trying to find a mesh between her law degree and health policy. It’s not easy to blend those, but she was really motivated.”

Wils is plunging into health care policy just as Oregon is undergoing a fundamental shift in the way it distributes health care to Oregonians. The state has established a health insurance exchange, a regulated online marketplace for residents to shop for coverage. The state also aims to improve quality with “coordinated care organizations,” groups of doctors, hospitals and other caregivers who will coordinate mental, physical and dental care for the 600,000 people covered by the Oregon Health Plan. Caregivers will be rewarded for keeping members healthy and achieving quality goals.

The new distribution system will require the legal expertise of people like Wils to help draft administrative rules, develop an advocacy strategy and advise lawmakers as they craft bills to make the system work.

“Health reform is going to be around for a number of years to come,” Vandehey says. “Having a diversified background is really important in today’s market, and I applaud Allison for taking that on.”