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March 7, 2023

Our Conversation with Professor of Practice Emeritus Tim Westmoreland

By Sylvie Bissell (H’26)

Before our conversation with Tim Westmoreland, a professor of practice emeritus at Georgetown Law, I was one of many people who did not fully understand the study or practice of health law. Professor Westmoreland received his Juris Doctorate from Yale Law School during a time when health care law was just beginning to emerge as a field. Instead of taking the bar exam, Professor Westmoreland used his knowledge of health care law to shape legislation as counsel to a subcommittee on health and the environment, becoming the lead staffer for health policy in the U.S. House of Representatives for 13 years. He demonstrated to our Conversations in Health: Global to Local class that a law degree can be an extremely powerful tool for influencing health care. This was evident in his numerous successes while working on the Hill, including his work on the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration.

Professor Westmoreland attributed the lack of success in passing the Clinton health reform plan to big pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, and hospitals convincing the American public that broader federal coverage of health insurance would take away the insurance they already had. As he wisely observed, Americans are reluctant to give up anything they have become accustomed to owning, even if the change would lead to positive overall results. Learning from their first attempt, the Democratic leadership attempted to work across the aisle and involve pharmaceutical and private insurance companies in the construction of the reform plan. Although this cooperation led to large sacrifices in health care coverage and funding, the compromise eventually provided millions of Americans with insurance.

One of the greatest lessons that I learned from our conversation with Professor Westmoreland is the importance of approaching a desired goal or policy sideways when working in politics. Many of his other achievements, like saving the federal childhood immunization program during the Reagan administration and directing the government response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, were the result of this political strategy, in which one must find ways to convince opposition that an idea or policy would support their interests as well. As I consider my future career in global health, I am beginning to recognize the crucial importance of this kind of cooperation between groups with opposing interests in health care. Professor Westmoreland also highlighted the value of working with all involved parties to create meaningful and sustainable changes in health care, including non-governmental organizations, activists, and those most impacted by the policy in question. This was crucial when he tried to gather federal attention at the start of the HIV/AIDs epidemic and worked with activists and politicians to support communities battling the disease.

It was a pleasure to speak with Professor Westmoreland about his outstanding career in health care law. Our conversation inspired me, and I am sure many of my classmates, to consider how we can influence health care in America through policy. His successful cooperation and perseverance during the tedious process of lawmaking offers hope that U.S. policy can continue to adapt and evolve to support the health of all Americans.

Sylvie Bissell (H’26) is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University studying global health on the pre-medical track. She is a student in the Conversations in Health: Global to Local course.