Lawyer moves from social work to specializing in long-term care

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Margaret Chamberlain rather fell sideways into her legal niche of long-term care matters, after a career as a social worker in several facilities.

“The truth is, I had no interest in practicing law,” she says. “I simply wanted a background that would allow me to be useful in the organization and management of nursing homes and other types of long term care facilities.
When I started law school, I had no idea there was such a thing as a long-term care specialty. Then, I serendipitously read in a Cooley Alumni magazine about someone practicing in the area of long-term care law – and here I am.”

A principal in the Lansing office of Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook, Chamberlain is a member of the firm’s long term care practice, dealing with a variety of legal issues, including health care law, health care fraud, reimbursement, administrative law and professional liability. She is a member of the State Bar of Michigan’s Health Care Law Section, as well as Leading Age Michigan’s Public Policy Task Force, and the Health Care Association of Michigan’s Legal/Regulatory Committee.

Health care law is increasingly more complex, and Chamberlain – who has been with Kitch for the past decade – finds her federal administrative appeal cases are particularly challenging. 

“When a nursing facility challenges regulatory findings by CMS, you might think that CMS has the burden to prove that the facility was out of compliance with the regulations. In fact, the facility has the burden of proof to show that it was in compliance,” she explains. “While that part of my practice can be frustrating, my firm has supported me and encouraged me to be a part of various advocacy groups and volunteer positions in the long term care industry.”

Her most interesting experience was being a part of the Task Force on Survey, Certification and Enforcement for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (now Leading Age) in Washington, D.C., which concluded with the publication of “Broken and Beyond Repair: Recommendations to Reform The Survey and Certification System” in 2008.

“Having worked in or for nursing homes since 1988 and hanging around them for much longer, I can very confidently say that I don’t think nursing homes or their workers are viewed fairly,” she says. “We only hear about the bad apples. You never hear about the other 98 percent of the nursing home work force who are doing a job they love, serving people they truly care about; that 98 percent doesn’t want the bad apples around either. They want to do the right thing and provide the best care they can. I like helping them do that.”

Chamberlain frequently lectures to health care professionals around the state, on legal issues facing long-term care providers.

“It’s exhilarating,” she says. “It fuels my passion for helping long-term care facilities provide better care.  It helps that most facilities want to do just that, so they are eager to learn.”

Her passion for health care dates back to second grade, when she read a book about autism, and set an early career goal of earning a Ph.D. in the field of psychology. This was a fairly consistent goal until the final term of her senior year at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., where she earned her undergrad degree in psychology.

A native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., Chamberlain worked for several years in long-term care facilities in Western New York.

“For no outstanding reason, I love working with the geriatric population,” she says. “My mother worked in a nursing home when I was in the second or third grade, and I loved getting dropped off there after school to hang out. As a nursing home social worker, it was rewarding for me to think that I possibly made a positive difference in the final phase of my residents’ lives. Selfishly, I was also rewarded with countless stories, advice, humor, wisdom, recipes, and countless other invaluable gifts from my residents.”

She earned her law degree, cum laude, from Cooley – in the days when Cooley only had one campus, in Lansing. 

“I particularly liked that I didn’t feel like the only person who quite obviously changed career paths later in life,” she says. “I also felt like Cooley did a fantastic job preparing me for the real world of law rather than a hypothetical one.”

In her leisure time, Chamberlain enjoys running, biking, hiking, photography, and exploring other parts of the world, and also volunteers on committees with several nursing home trade organizations. She and her husband, Paul Van Oostenburg, live in Grand Rapids, while their children, Max and Dana, make them proud as they pursue graduate school.

“I couldn’t be luckier to have a both a satisfying career and a great family to share it with,” she says.