Features: The Difference Maker

UNLV Boyd Law professor and dedicated healthcare advocate Dr. David Orentlicher makes his mark during first session as Nevada assemblyman

Monday, November 29, 2021
Dr. David Orentlicher

By Steve Bornfeld

By what title should we address this gentleman?

Professor? Assemblyman? Doctor? Esquire? Perhaps just … Dude?

“‘David’ will be just fine,” says doctor/state legislator/presidential adviser/author/UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law professor David Orentlicher.

Phew. That’s a relief, given his many accomplishments and accompanying titles. Actually, let’s just call him this: healthcare warrior.

“I was interested in both fields, medicine and the law, and I did well in the sciences and medicine, and my dad was a law professor so I also saw that side—how you can make important change, social reforms through the law,” says Orentlicher—who once practiced internal medicine as a physician—recalling the roots of his multi-pronged career.

“I saw medicine and law as ways to make important contributions. I started out in medicine thinking it was the better path for me but as I was going through it, I realized law was a better fit. I do not practice medicine now. But through the law I bring the two together, and my focus is on health law, both as a teacher and legislator.”

Harvard Medical School claims Orentlicher as a graduate. So does Harvard Law School. So does the Indiana House of Representatives, where he served from 2002-08, authoring legislation to promote job creation, make healthcare more affordable, and protect children from abuse and neglect, while simultaneously teaching at Indiana University’s law and medical schools.

Impressive double play in Indiana—one that he now replicates here. Not only does Orentlicher head up the UNLV Health Law Program, but he was elected to the Nevada State Assembly as a Democrat in November 2020. A deeper dive into his bulging résumé reveals Orentlicher also was a health policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, has testified before Congress, and had his scholarship cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.

You prioritize your health? You want this man on your side.

“The role that healthcare law plays in our country is huge,” says Orentlicher, who was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, directly in the hothouse of national politics. “With programs like Medicare and Medicaid, it’s a very highly regulated field, with good reason. We want to make sure that before drugs are put on the market that they are safe and effective, and now as we’ve seen with COVID-19, government plays a critical role in protecting the public’s health.”

So does Orentlicher. 

As a freshman Nevada legislator during the 2021 session, Orentlicher authored several bills, including Assembly Bill 345. Now a state law, the bill addresses Nevada’s opioid abuse crisis that has only worsened during the pandemic.
“One of the problems is drugs like heroin and other opioids are adulterated with fentanyl, and that can be lethal,” he says. “AB 345 allows distribution of test strips, so if somebody uses a drug that might have fentanyl, they can [first] test it and protect themselves.” 

“There are other things we can do to connect users to treatment and reduce the risk of overdose that other countries have done,” Orentlicher says. “I want to work on that.” For example, he plans to reintroduce a part of AB 345 that didn’t pass. It would have allowed Nevada’s two largest counties (Clark and Washoe) to create a pilot program for “safe injection sites” where people would be able to use drugs with clean needles and with trained medical staff onsite in case of overdoses.

Teaming with UNLV Boyd Law School’s Race, Gender & Policing Program, Orentlicher also worked on two bills related to police reform during the 2021 session. And he authored Assembly Bill 338, which grants the state treasurer greater flexibility when investing public funds to increase revenues, but with careful safeguards. Governor Steve Sisolak signed the bill into law.

While some efforts don’t always score, that doesn’t make them legislative whiffs—just potential triumphs waiting on deck. One of those is AB 347, which would have regulated medical fees. Put more simply: How to prevent doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies from making your wallet anemic. That goes to the heart of Orentlicher’s mission: universal access to healthcare. “It didn’t pass so I’m going to bring it back in the next session,” Orentlicher says.

He elaborates further: “Prescription drug [costs] are too high, but the main contributor to high healthcare costs are hospital costs. Those bills can be astronomical. When we look at what hospitals charge, they have a lot of leverage because sometimes they are the only hospital in the community, or they are the so-called ‘must-have’ hospital. When insurance companies are putting together their networks, they know their members are not going to be happy if they can’t go to one of the highly regarded hospitals in a community. That gives [hospitals] a lot of leverage with insurance companies when negotiating rates.”

Other nations, he says, are far better at controlling healthcare costs than the United States. They do this by relying on a public utility model, wherein governments set rates to ensure hospitals meet their costs and earn reasonable profits without putting patients under monetary strain or forcing them into financial ruin. 

“We saw in the early days of COVID that there are disparities in access,” Orentlicher says. “So broadening access is critical.”

When there are cracks of daylight in his otherwise jam-packed schedule, Orentlicher skips catnaps and writes books. Among them: Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch, which taps his experience with partisan conflict as an elected official and his expertise in constitutional law to discuss reforms that would address the country’s increasingly nasty and dangerous political polarization. He’s also the author of Matters of Life and Death: Making Moral Theory Work in Medical Ethics and the Law, and was co-author of Health Care Law and Ethics.

Five years ago, UNLV Boyd Law and Orentlicher began a happy partnership when he came aboard the faculty. “When they were expanding the Health Law Program, they encouraged me to apply,” he says.

“We’re a smaller law school—a large class here might be 50 or 60 students instead of 100. That’s better for the students and better for the professor. And being the only law school in the state is a plus, too, in our ability to connect students with the Legislature and courts for externships. It’s a good position to be in. We’re still a growing law school, and that’s also a nice place to be; you can do new things more easily here.” 

So says the doctor/state legislator/presidential adviser/author/professor.

You can just call him David.