School of Public Health alum Chalisa Sims (SPH’18) always knew that she wanted to pursue a career in health. Her father was a physician in the Navy, and her mother conducts mental health data analysis for healthcare systems—so, “working in the health field is in my blood,” Sims says.
A deep interest in health insurance—specifically, creating equitable access to health insurance coverage—led Sims to pursue her MPH at SPH, where she completed the health policy and law certificate in 2018.
“Being a military brat with TRICARE, health insurance was always easy for me to have,” says Sims. “The more I learned that it wasn’t so easy for other people, the more frustrated I became.”
As she began to delve into the inner workings of health insurance and healthcare laws in her certificate courses, Sims realized just how complex legal concepts, research, and writing really are.
“Policy and law are so interconnected, and I realized there was a lot about law that I didn’t understand,” says Sims. “I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure how to accomplish it if I didn’t understand what I was reading.”
Now, just a few years later, Sims is well versed in legalese, after earning her JD in May from the The University of Wisconsin Law School. In September, she will begin a new position as a first-year associate for the Madison, WI-based law firm Burns Bowen Bair, where she will advocate for clients in dispute with insurance companies, particularly those who are dealing with COVID-related medical bills.
When tackling legal questions and issues on health law, “you have to learn what the underlying problem is before you can even [address] the law,” she says. “I want everyone to have health insurance, but the underlying problem with health insurance is about how the health system is set up. Then you have to understand what the actual laws are that tell us how health insurance works, and the differences between state and federal laws. There are so many parts to the process before you can get to the actual answer.”
During the past year, Sims interned as a law clerk at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, analyzing FMLA qualifications and researching the impacts of COVID-19 relief.
“Reading about COVID relief and how it interacts with taxes made me realize just how much I had learned about health law,” says Sims. who says that she also became a much stronger and effective writer from crafting different types of legal documents. “I feel so much better knowing that I can help so many more people, because I’m not just saying that something should be done, I can now articulate how it can be done.”
She credits her SPH education and professors in the Department of Health Law, Policy & Management—including Alan Sager and Wendy Mariner—for enabling her to hone her research skills and develop detailed arguments in lengthy pieces of writing.
“Alan Sager’s finance classes were so helpful because money is so important in the context of health insurance,” Sims says. She says Mariner taught her so much how laws interact with each other, and inspired a paper that she is currently writing about how certain legal actions—such as restrictions against natural hair styles—impact the social determinants of health among African Americans.
“Discrimination against natural hair impacts people’s health in so many ways,” says Sims, who is Black. For example, she says, relaxers and other chemical straighteners “are dangerous for the person receiving it and the person applying it. But with natural hair, there are issues about how qualified we look for the job, instead of how qualified we actually are, and that can impact finances, housing, and healthcare. It’s all connected.”