Jennifer Jaff, Advocate for the Ill, Dies at 55
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: September 23, 2012
Jennifer Jaff, a lawyer whose nearly four-decade struggle with a debilitating disease led her to become a leading advocate for people with chronic illnesses, died on Sept. 14 at her home in Farmington, Conn. She was 55.
Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times
Jennifer Jaff led Advocacy for Patients With Chronic Illness.
The cause was complications of Crohn’s disease, an incurable gastrointestinal disorder that she was found to have when she was 19, said her brother, Dr. Michael Jaff, a vascular medicine specialist.
Ms. Jaff was the founder and director of Advocacy for Patients With Chronic Illness, an organization she started in her home in 2005 after she found that she could no longer work at her law practice. She assisted more than 5,000 clients in filing claims with insurance companies so they could receive increased coverage of what she called invisible disabilities — among them Crohn’s disease, autoimmune disorders (in which the immune system attacks healthy body tissue), congenital metabolic disorders and sickle cell anemia.
But her mission went far beyond steering patients through the maze of the health insurance industry, in which, she argued, the providers do all they can to minimize coverage of chronic illness. She spoke to groups across the country, lobbied politicians and published a handbook, “Know Your Rights,” which offers guidance on insurance appeals, Social Security disability benefits, job discrimination, educational equity and housing discrimination.
Ms. Jaff wrote an amicus brief in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the case in which the United States Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in June. Her brief argued in support of the provision prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against people with existing conditions.
“She has had an impact across the country,” said Victoria Veltri, who heads the Connecticut Office of the Healthcare Advocate, an independent state agency. “She was one of the people really involved in pushing that provision. She knew it was the key to ensuring that people with chronic illness finally would have access to health care that would prevent them from having to go into massive debt or bankruptcy.”
After the Supreme Court ruling, Ms. Jaff told The Hartford Courant: “I live and breathe chronic-illness law, and in my estimation this is the most important civil rights advance for people with chronic illnesses ever. There can never be equality if we can’t get health insurance.”
Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disorder that causes severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, gastrointestinal bleeding and, in some cases, blood clots and rashes. Ms. Jaff underwent eight operations and, during one 12-year period, was prescribed steroids that caused her to gain 120 pounds. At one point her kidneys began to shut down.
Jennifer Chett Jaff was born in New Hyde Park, N.Y., on June 12, 1957, to Alvin and Susan Britt Jaff. She graduated from Queens College and received her law degree from Georgetown University.
In the late 1990s, after a career as a trial lawyer, she served as an assistant state attorney general in Connecticut. After returning to private practice, she began representing chronically ill clients. When her own condition worsened, Ms. Jaff founded Advocacy for Patients, raised funds and began offering free counseling to clients.
“I wish I had known at 19 that it is O.K. to ask questions,” she said in a 2009 interview with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Policy, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. “I was afraid to question my doctors — afraid that they would not like me or want to care for me.”
Ms. Jaff is survived by her brother and her father.