Victoria Veltri
Victoria Veltri ()

In her first career, Victoria Veltri worked as a legal aid lawyer in Hartford.

Her early duties included representing tenants who were trying to get landlords to repair their apartments or return security deposits. Those battles sowed the seeds for future advocacy. “I realized raising public awareness could go a long way in solving problems,” said Veltri, who moved on to handling health care law for Greater Hartford Legal Aid before she was appointed Connecticut’s Healthcare Advocate in 2006.

Recently, Veltri’s advocacy took on a national focus. Last month, she joined U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal at a press conference in front of what will soon be a Hobby Lobby store in Manchester. Both she and Blumenthal condemned the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision—in a case brought by the Hobby Lobby company—that gave private companies that object to contraception for religious reasons the power to limit birth control benefits in their employees’ health insurance benefit packages.

Veltri said the decision undercuts medical findings that the full range of contraception should be available to women.

“The decision … really puts the employer between a consumer—the patient—and the patient’s provider. We’ve argued for years that the decisions made between a patient and a provider need to be respected. This decision really undoes that protection,” she said.

Just a few weeks later, Veltri was outspoken agan, this time calling for a public hearing on Anthem’s proposal to increase health insurance races next year by more than 12 percent. Partially as a result of her advocacy against the proposal, the rate hikes were shot down.

“As we demonstrated during the course of the public hearing, the rates requested in the application were excessive and unsupported by sufficient evidence,” Veltri said in a joint statement with Attorney General George Jepsen. “This ruling requires Anthem to resubmit its application in accordance with the department’s recommendations—which will result in lower rates than Anthem had requested.”

Part civil servants, part rabble-rousers, the state’s public advocates—including the Child Advocate, Victim Advocate and Healthcare Advocate—are all lawyers by training and they hold unique positions in government. Although employed by the state, they serve as independent watchdogs and often take stands in opposition to the powers that be.

That independence is critical to their role. In fact, some advocates for people with disabilities recent were upset by the appointment of former Craig Henrici as head of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities because they felt that the former Democratic mayor of Hamden was too close to the man who appointed him, Gov. Dannel Malloy. Though the Malloy administration touted Henrici’s experiences as the father of a child with a developemental disability, one critic warned against putting a “political appointee into a position where their job [is] actually at times to take on the administration.”

At this point, no one is questioning the independence of Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, who has taken on the state Department of Children and Families in a recent case where a 16-year-old transgender girl was held in a detention center for boys. Eagan, who became the state Child Advocate last year, issued a statement through her office that called out DCF for singling out the girl when announcing that she had been involved in a fight with other girls at a psychiatric center.

“The public shaming of Jane Doe, a victim of significant abuse and neglect, is also inexplicable in light of the fact that the July 12 incident involved four girls, all of whom were restrained, all of whom were described in DCF records as hitting each other and staff,” the Child Advocate’s Office announced in a press release.

The statement went beyond the transgender case. “Records also reveal over 200 incidents in the last 13 weeks where staff at the boys’ or girls’ units reported using physical or mechanical restraint, including handcuffs,” the Child Advocate’s Office said. “The fact that many youth move through residential and correctional facilities without being ‘better’ is not a sign of their incorrigibility. Rather, it is consistent with the evidence that long-term institutional care, particularly without consistent support from a nurturing family or caregiver, does not work.”

Eagan, who leads the watchdog agency charged with monitoring the state departments responsible for protecting abused and neglected children, did not respond to calls seeking an interview. Before being named Child Advocate, she was with the non-profit Center for Children’s Advocacy, where she was one of the loudest critics of the state’s DCF. “The agency often lacks basic data necessary to measure [foster] children’s educational progress,” Eagan wrote in an opinion piece in the Hartford Courant.

Michael Lawlor, who is Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top criminal justice policy adviser, said he does not believe the recent statements by advocates is part of a new trend. He said the Eagan and Veltri are simply doing their jobs. “The personalities have changes, but the whole point [of the advocates] in the first place was to have people who were individuals with a narrow focus to speak out on issues,” he said.

One of the state advocates, Victim Advocate Garvin Ambrose, recently announced he was leaving the position to return to his hometown of Chicago.

Lawlor, who serves on the committee that screens candidates for Victim Advocate, had high praise for Ambrose and said the seven-member panel is in the process of evaluating potential replacements. The governor must appoint a new advocate from the committee’s list of recommended finalists.

Ambrose’s predecessor was Michelle Cruz, a former Massachusetts prosecutor, who left the Victim Advocate position following published reports that she and the governor differed sharply on a state initiative that allowed inmates to reduce their sentences through good behavior and participation in educational programs.

Cruz, who had been appointed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2007, had replaced Jim Papillo, a West Hartford lawyer who told the Law Tribune in 2013 that the position was not an easy one to handle politically. “It’s pretty clear the position calls for you to be part of the criminal justice system and work with all of the departments and agencies but also to police them,” said Papillo. “And when you speak out against policies that are adverse to crime victims, you’re going to get very powerful people in the state angry at you.”

But as Veltri points out, there is more to the state advocates than raising awareness and mixing it up with state agencies. She says that since the Office of Healthcare Advocate was launched in 2001, it has helped consumers save more than $50 million by becoming involved in medical bill disputes and arguing for insurance coverage for a wide range of medical procedures.

Veltri said her office is usually able to step in and get a quick resolution. “I haven’t had to go to court,” she said, adding a quick “yet” to the sentence.

A typical case, she said, might be resolved in a few days. She described a man who needed substance abuse treatment. A health insurance provider denied coverage for any treatment longer than a week, which exposed the man’s family to thousands of dollars of potential payments. Veltri said her office was able to encourage the provider to reconsider its decision and to pay for a month of needed treatment.

In other cases, Veltri’s office has been successful getting medical bills reduced for patients who could not afford to pay them. “We would like to be able to say to people that insurance and health care are not complicated,” Veltri said. “But they are.”

Beyond managing the office, Veltri said much of her time is spend weighing in on matters of public policy, such as the Hobby Lobby decision. Veltri said stepping on some toes comes with the territory.

“The nature of this job is political,” she said. “Our duties include informing and advocating for change on behalf of consumers when we think consumers deserve better. That means we are engaged in legislative and administrative activities that ensure maximum protection of consumers’ health care rights.”

Veltri said she enjoys being able to help make change that benefits “residents as a whole after seeing individuals struggle one at a time.”

“The satisfaction that comes from helping one client resolve an issue and turning that into system-wide change is what keeps me going,” she said.

“I look at it this way. We’re all on the planet for a reason—to help each other. It’s the privilege of a lifetime to do that every day of the week and get paid for it.”•