As a child, Vanessa Benavides always wanted to be a doctor. Benavides grew up in an economically depressed area along the Texas-Mexico border. In her community, in fact, many people did not have healthcare coverage, so they either did not receive care or only interacted with healthcare providers in settings like the emergency room.
“I was fascinated with social issues,” Benavides says. And the healthcare debates during President Bill Clinton’s years in office sparked her interest in healthcare, specifically.
While taking premed courses at Vanderbilt University, though, she found that she preferred the humanities to science. So, she changed course and started working toward a path to law school. There, she also experienced a cultural sea change, transitioning from a humble community to one of the wealthiest college campuses in the country.
“Neither of my parents went to college,” she says. “They did well with a strong work ethic and determination. I have always admired that, but I knew education was my path to a broader array of opportunities.”
After attending law school at the University of Iowa College of Law, Benavides began her career at a large law firm as an associate in the healthcare practice. After moving in-house to a large healthcare organization, Benavides took the leap from law to compliance when she discovered that compliance would allow her to integrate both law and business skills and enable her to have a big impact on issues she cared about.
“It was a great leap,” she says. “Rather than focusing on discreet legal questions, compliance work requires a broader scope and allowed me to be part of business decisions. There’s such an identity to being a lawyer, so it was hard to give up practicing law, but I’ve never looked back.”
Through compliance, Benavides has found a career in healthcare that looks different from the traditional legal path she initially had in mind. After holding senior compliance positions at Tenet Health, she is now the senior vice president and chief compliance and privacy officer at Kaiser Permanente. In her current role, Benavides is focused on building a culture of trust, one that supports the organization’s mission and ensures that people at all levels of the organization are delivering consistently excellent care and service to the nearly twelve million Kaiser Permanente members.
Over the years, Benavides has seen the perception of compliance change at the organizations she has helped lead. Rather than solely reacting to issues as they arise, she has made compliance discussions more proactive and business-oriented. At Kaiser Permanente, she and her team are focused on developing a culture where compliance is an accessible, trusted source of counsel to employees throughout the organization.
Still, many challenges remain as the national healthcare landscape continues to change, with an impact on the rules and regulations that Benavides’ team navigates day to day. Benavides keeps a close eye on the landscape and an even closer eye on the responsibility her team shoulders: maintaining the trust of members and people in the communities that Kaiser Permanente serves. And that’s the most rewarding aspect of her job, she says.
“It’s a big privilege and a big responsibility,” she says. “We can do good with our business. Witnessing the actual impact of what we do in people’s lives and in the community—it’s very rewarding.”
From Healthcare to Human Rights
Vanessa Benavides is passionate about supporting important causes.
“I’ve learned my biggest leadership lesson through volunteering, and it translates beautifully to my career in healthcare,” she says. “I’ve experienced how every person can make an impact when they harness their passion toward a purpose greater than themselves. If you can inspire the same passionate purpose in others, it’s very empowering.”
Since 2001, Benavides has volunteered with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and she currently chairs the organization’s board of directors.
HRC is the largest national civil rights nonprofit working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans. Best known for advocating for marriage equality and legislation like the Equality Act, HRC’s work has helped millions of LGBTQ people in every community across the nation. Benavides is particularly proud of the way that HRC has stepped up to meet new challenges facing the LGBTQ community.
In the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, HRC took a stand to fight for common sense gun legislation. HRC also mobilized against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which would have had a devastating impact on people living with HIV/AIDS. And in the wake of attacks on DACA—including seventy-five thousand LGBTQ Dreamers—the organization has stepped up to fight for DACA recipients.
“The LGBTQ community is a cross-section of this diverse country,” Benavides says. “We come from all walks of life, and we all want the same thing—equal access to the promise of this great nation.”