Eleanor ‘Ele’ Hamburger and client Oliver and his mom | Credit: Will Austin
If you become seriously ill and your insurance provider won’t cover you, you might just want to call Ele Hamburger. In her more than 25 years of practicing law, she’s successfully represented many people with serious health conditions and disabilities to obtain coverage they needed after being denied by their health insurance providers. “When you’re sick, the last thing you want to do is have to deal with the court system,” says Hamburger.
But for many U.S. citizens, especially those with rare illnesses, that’s exactly what they’ll have to do. That’s where Hamburger comes in, helping clients to sue providers to secure crucial medical care and coverage.
Arzu Forough, president and CEO of Washington Autism Alliance & Advocacy, knows firsthand about Hamburger’s track record for standing up to insurance companies, the state of Washington, powerful lobbyists and state agencies to ensure that the rights of the most vulnerable children in our state are preserved and upheld. He puts numbers to the lives positively and directly impacted by Hamburger’s efforts: “Because of Hamburger’s tireless representation, 30,000 children and over 100,000 adults with developmental disabilities have health and disability benefits throughout Washington state, [benefits that provide essential] neurodevelopmental and behavioral health services.”
Though it isn’t always easy, Hamburger says, there’s been progress, especially in recent years. “Since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many fights we used to have with insurance companies about life-saving treatment are no longer necessary,” she says. That means for patients like 10-year-old Oliver — a client who suffers from a rare form of leukemia — that coverage is required.
Still, Hamburger says, coverage isn’t enough. Research is also critical, but, of course, research requires funding. “There’s so much being learned about Oliver’s specific type of cancer every day, but because it’s so rare, potentially life-saving treatments aren’t being tested by pharmaceutical companies.”
Not that the lack of such research has stopped Oliver, whom Hamburger calls the real superhero. He has set up his own fundraising initiative, with the goal of raising $50,000 to fund pharmaceutical research leading to treatments for his disease.
“He’s a great example of why I feel so lucky to have this job,” says Hamburger.
For Oliver’s family, the feeling is mutual. His mother, Laura Marie MacPherson, says one instance in particular stands out: When insurance companies refused to cover the most nutritious formula for Oliver’s liquid diet. “Oliver was struggling with losing weight and needed formula. He was just so sick,” she says. Weary, MacPherson called Hamburger in tears. “Ele’s response was simply ‘We’ll figure it out. I’ll be there this afternoon.’” And she was.
Who is your personal hero?
A woman I worked with named Florette Angel. She was an amazing activist and advocate for children and for health care, and she inspired me deeply. She worked for a children’s organization in West Virginia at the time, in a place with high childhood poverty and serious problems with the health-care system. She fought every day to impact people’s lives, in particular, the lives of children. She was a true hero to me.
What do you want people to understand about your work?
People have more rights than they realize when they start doing advocacy related to their health care and coverage. Unfortunately, though, the fight doesn’t stop even when a lawyer comes in and gets coverage in place. The next fight might be finding out what the right treatment even is, especially in cases where patients have rare diseases, like Oliver’s. It’s unfortunate that we have a health-care system where people sometimes need lawyers, but here we are.
What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?
First, I think the small but very positive action people could take would be to support Oliver’s effort to ensure rare cancers get the research money they deserve. Second, when people get a denial for health-care coverage, they should question it. They should look up what their health care entitles them to and consider appealing. Third, vote!
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
I’d eliminate the need for my job and people could get the health care they need when they need it, without a fuss.
Fill in the blank:
What the world needs now is activism. People don’t always think of lawyers as activists, but we are fighting for social justice every day, for real, tangible change in people’s lives. But you don’t have to be a lawyer to be an activist; you can be a kid raising money for research, like Oliver. Whatever the cause, we need more people to pick up the mantle of activism for positive change in our world.