Kristen Noelle Hatcher is the managing attorney of the Benefits Unit at Connecticut Legal Services Inc. To gain access to health care, food assistance, income maintenance, energy assistance, child care assistance, and other programs for individuals to meet their basic needs, she and the Benefits Unit take on individual cases, class actions, and systemic advocacy. Her journey to health equity work began at a Wesleyan University course on the history of race in the United States and its impact on health, housing, education, law, and other systems. She drew on this knowledge while working for a managed Medicaid nonprofit organization serving Connecticut and in performing interventional research in the public health system in Denver. This work inspired her to attend law school so that she could examine health inequities in new forums. While at the University of Colorado School of Law, she clerked at the chief counsel’s office for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Denver, deepening her passion for health care advocacy. As an attorney with Connecticut Legal Services, she is on the Health Disparities Committee of the SustiNet Health Partnership Board. She has been serving since 2010 on the Connecticut Commission on Health Equity; she was on the commission’s executive committee and founded and chaired its youth committee. She completed a Health Leadership Fellows Program with the Connecticut Health Foundation in 2011 and was invited back to serve as a senior fellow. She also served in appointments to the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities Regional Health Equity Council for Region I and the Connecticut Council on Medical Assistance Program Oversight.
You’ve been working on health law and health care issues at least since you participated in the first Leadership Academy in 2006–2007. What do you see as the biggest health-related legal issue that your clients face?
Access to health care that they are legally entitled to. Our clients are often denied Medicaid coverage when they should not be, or they are denied coverage for a medically necessary procedure or medication that should be covered. Often our clients do not realize that they are entitled to coverage and that if they are denied coverage, they can exercise their due process rights to pursue coverage. In some instances, a proper denial notice that states the reason for the denial and the clients’ right to appeal is not issued, leaving the clients unaware of any legal recourse. In addition, there is a laundry list of health care access barriers for people with low incomes that can be addressed legally, such as discrimination.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
Thurgood Marshall. Where do I begin? He is awe-inspiring. He founded the Legal Defense Fund, and, while leading it, he won Shelley v. Kraemer and Brown v. Board of Education among many other cases. He was the first black U.S. solicitor general and U.S. Supreme Court justice. I often think about what it would have been like to be a lawyer during those times. I think about the people who fought those important battles and risked their lives—the clients, the lawyers, the judges, everyone involved. It is so admirable, and, as a biracial black woman, I never take for granted what I am able to do today because of what was done by those before me.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
When people have access to [behavioral and mental health] treatment, it can change not just their lives but the lives of everyone around them.
The racial health equity advocacy that I have done to address gaps in behavioral health care for young people of color. I did this work in my race equity work, but there is a need for this advocacy in all demographics. On a macro and micro level, I’ve observed the impact of unaddressed behavioral and mental health conditions. When people have access to treatment, it can change not just their lives but the lives of everyone around them. If a child with behavioral health needs receives the proper diagnosis and treatment, a world of opportunity opens up for that child, including opportunities that we might take for granted, like being able to attend class and learn instead of being expelled due to a behavior issue that was actually a manifestation of an undiagnosed and untreated health condition. If a mother is able to access treatment for her own health condition and does, her children will have a completely different childhood from if she had not been able to, and she will experience motherhood very differently as a result. We need to move past the stigma that surrounds behavioral and mental health conditions and get to a place where we see these conditions as we see those we would go to our primary care provider for.
You are part of the Shriver Center’s Racial Justice Training Institute (RJTI) this year. How do you plan to use what you have learned in RJTI in your work?
At times I have felt enormous frustration with the number of factors that seem to simultaneously work together to create hurdles for the communities of color I serve. RJTI gives me a way to use that frustrated energy to advocate. I have already used the communication tools we learned that put race on the table when it might not feel so comfortable to do so. Our RJTI team scheduled an internal training for our organization at which everyone will learn about and take an implicit bias test and learn de-biasing techniques. We are planning a similar training for the staff of a school district that my colleague works with. Our organization is planning to integrate race equity into all of our practices over time. Our RJTI team’s ultimate internal goal is to recreate this training for our whole organization because it has been so helpful to each of us.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I LOVE detective shows, movies, books. Fiction and nonfiction. To excess—I become a bit obsessed. I am always looking for one that will completely surprise me at the end.