Selfhelp Community Services has been assisting victims of Nazi persecution and elderly New Yorkers for decades, but until Valerie Bogart arrived the not-for-profit had a skeletal legal operation.
A decade ago, a part-time lawyer handled an advice hotline once a week, and occasionally trained social workers in the organization.
Now, the Evelyn Frank Legal Resources Program—Selfhelp’s legal arm—is a potent office that in the last fiscal year provided advice to 658 individuals, including 130 victims of the Holocaust.
Bogart, director of the legal program, and her staff, which now includes two other attorneys, two paralegals, one administrative assistant and three part-time volunteer lawyers, provided direct legal services in fiscal 2012 to 327 clients, drafting legal documents and appearing at hearings.
And she plans to hire another lawyer this year as the program now offers guidance to social workers outside Selfhelp and to elder law attorneys on services for seniors.
“She really has taken a program that was very part time and turned it into a robust legal services department,” said Stuart Caplan, CEO of Selfhelp. “It is as if she started a brand new program.”
Selfhelp Community Services was created in 1936 to assist victims of Nazi persecution. Today, it is the largest provider of services in North America to Holocaust survivors. The group provides social work, home care and legal guidance on entitlements, among other services. It has expanded to provide help to other seniors, such as affordable housing, home care and senior centers in the New York area.
Selfhelp began the legal assistance program in 2000 and named it after Evelyn Frank, a Medicaid attorney and the daughter of the late Hans Frank, one of the founding partners of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and a Selfhelp board member.
The group brought in Bogart, who had spent her career serving the elderly, in 2002.
“Our expectations of her being able to fulfill the role as sort of legal support to our staff has been exceeded multiple times over and her recognition within [the] community of peers is extraordinary,” Caplan said.
Steven Tepper, an Arnold & Porter partner who nominated Bogart for a New York Law Journal award, said that under her leadership the Evelyn Frank Legal Program “has become a leader in protecting the rights of Holocaust survivors to obtain Medicaid and other federal benefits without having to spend down their reparations.”
“She and her staff have won Medicaid for individual victims of Nazi persecution in difficult and highly adversarial cases, have advised hundreds of professionals on advocacy strategies, and produced online training on this issue and a Web page which is distributed by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany,” Tepper said in his nominating letter.
During the last fiscal year, the program responded to 661 requests for technical assistance from elder law or legal services attorneys, social workers, government officials and other professionals seeking guidance on matters such as Medicaid issues, Medicare Part D, administrative hearing procedures, Social Security or client-specific questions on obtaining benefits or strategies to use when benefits are denied.
The program’s growth was an evolution, Bogart said.
When she joined, the office starting receiving more calls from specialists outside Selfhelp. Demand for the program’s services picked up when Medicare Part D was implemented, Bogart said. For each new level of demand, Bogart said she requested additional staffing and worked with Selfhelp’s development office to find funding.
“You identify the need and you go out and try to fund it,” she said.
Bogart, 56, carries her own case load, representing seniors or disabled persons to obtain or preserve benefits.
For instance, earlier this year she represented a 73-year-old Brooklyn woman who was disabled and confined to a wheelchair. The 24-hour home care services she received for two years stopped when she signed up for an advertised “Medicaid Advantage” insurance plan, not knowing this type of plan did not cover home-care services. Bogart helped to reinstate the services.
Bogart and the programs’ assistant director, David Silva, train outside groups at least once a week on aspects of Medicaid, such as supplement needs trusts, changes to managed long-term care plans and Medicaid spend-downs. They speak to elder law attorneys for continuing legal education, social worker organizations and other nonprofits focused on aging.
She also helps maintain nyhealthaccess.org, which briefs elder law attorneys, social workers and the public on changes in the law.
“Sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh you’re in nonprofit, so there’s less pressure’” compared with working in law firms, Bogart said, “We just laugh because they really have no clue. You have a grant deadline, you have brief deadline. You have a huge demand from clients who need your help. You have training tomorrow and you have to create a slide show today.”
Bogart said she works about 10-hour days, with some workdays extending past 9 p.m.
“Our clients commonly get notices threatening to cut off their benefits and it’s Christmas Eve,” she said. “These changes [in benefits and the law] are happening 24/7, 12 months a year, even when you take a vacation. Sometimes you just can’t take a vacation.”
Bogart said the web of government agencies and private insurers “are life-changing systems, and the people they’re for don’t have a voice in those systems, and there’s a lot of injustice in how these decisions are made.”
Right now, she has taken the lead in voicing concerns over changes to Medicaid-provided home care.
As part of changes passed by the state last year, managed long- term care plans that act as private insurers will have responsibility for authorizing Medicaid plans allowing for home care services, including nurses, aides, wheelchairs and other equipment, Bogart said. The law shifts the responsibility from local government Medicaid offices, she said.
Consumer advocates such as Bogart and others are concerned these changes could impact the amount and quality of home care for those with severe disabilities.
“Valerie is at the forefront of that battle,” said Peter Strauss, senior counsel at Epstein Becker & Green who focuses on trusts and estates and elder law. “She’s the one analyzing the implications. She’s advising everyone on the risks. She tells us what strategies to use to appeal that letter from Medicaid.”
Strauss said Bogart is a familiar name in elder law.
“I would say every elder law attorney in New York state, or maybe nationally, knows Valerie because of her work and her writing,” he said. “She’s always passionate and rallies the troops.”
Kevin Cremin, director of litigation for disability and aging rights at MFY Legal Services, said that what sets Bogart apart “is the scope and depth of her knowledge.”
“A lot of people work hard, but she really seems tireless” in efforts to help individuals and understand and dissect complicated information on senior services, Cremin said.
Bogart didn’t initially set her sights on becoming the expert in elder law. But the field found her.
After graduating from New York University School of Law in 1982, she practiced at the Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn Office for the Aging. She then worked for Legal Services NYC at a now defunct program, Legal Services for the Elderly.
“I became really immersed in the world of health access for older people and people with disabilities and became a specialist for accessing long-term case services,” she said.
Bogart said she gains special satisfaction in working with the poorest clients, those living on $800 a month in SSI income, and helping them maximize their benefits. “You can’t solve every problem, but sometimes our expert advice on how to follow the rules, completely ‘on the up and up,’ makes a huge difference in their lives,” she said.
One client, a woman in her 90s, showed her gratitude by baking a cheesecake from a recipe brought from her homeland in Eastern Europe and with the help of an aide, rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan to deliver the gift. “You are just buoyed by people’s appreciation,” she said.