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After nine years at the AIDS Law Project, including seven as executive director, attorney Nan Feyler is leaving the post to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University. But with classes scheduled for just one long weekend each month — four eight-hour days — Feyler plans to split her time between studying and working as a part-time consultant to the Philadelphia Health Department trying to increase Medicaid enrollment in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. She’s come a long way since her days as Curly the Clown. In a recent interview, Feyler talked about what led her to focus her legal efforts on the AIDS crisis, what she hopes she has accomplished at the AIDS Law Project and where she’s going from here. After a few years touring the country with a traveling circus, Feyler decided it was time for college. She attended the New College in Sarasota, Fla., where she wrote her senior thesis on the social effects of laughter. At the age of 29, she enrolled in New York University law school as a Root-Tilden scholar — a program designed to support law students who intend to go into public-interest work. It was 1982, and New York was just beginning to come to grips with a mysterious, new epidemic. “I remember where I was when National Public Radio said that there were eight gay men in New York and six in San Francisco that had all died of a disease that only Eastern Europeans in their 70s and 80s ordinarily get. I remember being very scared about what this meant,” Feyler said. Since Root-Tilden scholars are funded to take summer jobs with public-interest firms, Feyler, an open lesbian, chose to work with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the country’s leading legal advocacy group for lesbian and gay rights. One of the first cases she worked on was the first-ever HIV-discrimination case. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend was denied renewal of his commercial lease because he was seeing people with the new disease. “It’s hard to remember, but there was no legal theory at that time,” Feyler said. The U.S. Supreme Court had not yet handed down the decision that said the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 covers transmissible and contagious diseases. “The big dilemma was how were we even going to fight discrimination. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation wasn’t illegal, so was it based on marital status? Was it based on disability? Was it based on gender?” The Lambda lawyers decided to sue under a New York City disability ordinance. They won, securing a preliminary injunction that reinstated the doctor’s lease. Soon after graduating, Feyler published a law review article on using state constitutions to repeal sodomy laws. But she wasn’t interested in practicing law right away. Instead, she helped start the CUNY Law School, joining the fledgling school in its third year to help increase minority enrollment and establish a public-interest job-placement program. She stayed for five years. When she began looking for work as a lawyer, Feyler set her sights on the Philadelphia public defender office. But her mind was still on the AIDS crisis. “I could see early on that this epidemic was going to be in the incarcerated population,” Feyler said. “I’m still fighting to be heard on this issue. It’s staggering to the imagination that people just don’t get that who we’re locking up are the same people at risk for transmission of this disease.” Feyler said she had several reasons for wanting to cut her teeth in criminal defense work. “To be a real civil-rights lawyer, you have to understand criminal justice,” she said. In her 18 months in the defenders office, Feyler moved up to the level of trial attorney and found herself prepping 20 felony trials per week. She joined the AIDS Law Project nine years ago, first as a staff attorney, and became executive director two years later when founding director David Weber stepped down. In her years at the helm, the office has swelled from a staff of three to 14, including five lawyers and four paralegals. While the epidemic is “stabilizing,” Feyler said the work has continued to expand, in part because the project has constantly been forced to expand its mission to meet its clients’ varied needs. All along, Feyler said, about 10 percent of the calls have been complaints of discrimination. The office currently fields about 1,800 to 2,000 calls per year. Feyler oversaw a broad diversification of the office’s programs, taking on not just insurance and employment issues, but housing, health care, immigration and family law. “HIV is a disease of poverty,” she said. “Access to health care is the frontline effort.” But beyond basic health care, Feyler said her lawyers often found that mothers with HIV were confronting issues about how to provide for the care of their children after their death. The office drafted Pennsylvania’s stand-by guardianship law, modeled on statutes that had been passed in nine other states. “There was no mechanism in the law to plan today and get some legal certainty today about what will happen to your children in the future,” she said. A will has no legal authority until it has been probated, Feyler explained, so a grandmother whose daughter dies of AIDS often is not appointed the guardian for a year. Without a stand-by guardian law, such a caretaker spends “a year in legal limbo,” she said, during which it’s often difficult to make decisions about the child’s schooling or medical care. Now, Feyler said, a terminally ill parent can choose a guardian to be on stand-by and “designate the triggering events under which conditions they’ll step in.” The parent can go forward with a hearing or opt instead just to name a guardian who can step in for up to 60 days. Although the AIDS crisis is not nearly as critical today as it once was, Feyler said she is troubled by recent statistics that show the disease is still spreading and that many low-income people with HIV are not getting treatment or being even diagnosed for years. And as advances are made in medicine, Feyler said AIDS has dropped a few notches in the public consciousness. “We got rejected from several foundations that said almost that AIDS is over. They basically said we won’t fund AIDS anymore; our priorities have shifted,” she said. Feyler’s office has managed to recover and secure funding for its $800,000 annual budget with $300,000 in Ryan White funds from Congress and grants from the William Penn Foundation and the Pew Foundation. The office also gets free lawyers from the Independence Foundation, which pays the salaries for two attorneys who spend two years on staff. Feyler said Independence “has been a tremendous supporter. … They funded us when no one else would to work on access to health care for prisoners. I mean nobody likes prisoners.” Working with attorneys Angus Love of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and Jules Epstein of Kairys Rudovsky Epstein Messing & Rau, Feyler has established programs in state and county prisons to help inmates with HIV to secure access to proper health care. One major concern, she said, is “continuity of care upon release,” because 50 percent of all HIV-positive inmates first learn they’re positive in prison and 87 percent don’t have a doctor when they get out. The City of Philadelphia now gives three days of medication on release, she said. “Right now I’m very interested in pushing the envelope on getting condoms in our state prisons,” she said. Succeeding Feyler as executive director will be attorney Ronda B. Goldfein, a senior staff attorney in the office who has worked on several landmark AIDS discrimination cases. In 1993, Goldfein helped negotiate a groundbreaking settlement in which the Philadelphia Fire Department agreed to provide AIDS education to more than 2,000 firefighters and emergency medical technicians. And just last year, Goldfein pursued a claim on behalf of a man who was fired when his bosses learned that his life partner had AIDS. The case set a precedent for discrimination on the basis of association with a person with AIDS. As she pursues her master’s degree, Feyler said she intends to “focus on obstacles to health care and health economics.” As for what comes after that, Feyler isn’t sure. “My goal is to stay in Philadelphia and continue to improve access to health care. Whether I work with the Health Department, whether I work for a non-profit, whether I start another non-profit, I don’t know — and I don’t know enough about what I don’t know,” she said. “So I think that I will continue to be an advocate and use my knowledge of Medicaid and eligibility. But I decided finally to not worry about that — I think I can make a difference, whatever it is I end up doing. And right now I’m really just looking forward to learning new things.”

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