The roots of the Government Employees Health Association (GEHA) hark back more than eighty years to when railway workers in Kansas City, Missouri, passed a hat to help their injured colleagues pay for medical expenses. Today, GEHA is one of the largest medical and dental benefit providers, exclusively serving federal employees, annuitants, military retirees, and their families. In 2016, the organization recruited Belinda Aguilar Thompson, and she currently serves as vice president and deputy general counsel. Thompson is a perfect fit for the role—for much more than just her legal expertise.
The granddaughter of a Mexico native who immigrated to Texas, Thompson grew up in a suburb of New Orleans, an environment she describes as “working class and multiculturally rich.” Her father worked a variety of blue-collar jobs to make ends meet, eventually becoming a certified welder and joining a union. Her mother, who had had no indoor plumbing, phone, or electricity as a young child, worked for the US Postal Service.
“We didn’t have much growing up, but we had a lot more than they had,” Thompson remembers. “What my parents did have was this drive to make a better life for themselves and their family. And their drive impacted me. I got in the habit of figuring things out for myself. And I knew I wanted more.”
A passionate student from an early age, Thompson got an idea of what “more” could look like when her tenth-grade biology teacher noticed her debating skills and encouraged her to become a lawyer. Years later, Thompson took a leap of faith and enrolled at Louisiana State University. There, she did not find many mentors, but she did meet people from a huge variety of backgrounds—an “enlightening” experience, Thompson says.
“I’m proud that we’ve transformed GEHA’s legal division from a service function to a collaborative partner that helps solve problems and achieve business objectives.”
The subsequent years saw Thompson take an unconventional route to law when she supported herself while taking part-time classes at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. She then transferred and graduated from the University of Tulsa Law School. Before too long, she had found a position at Tulsa law firm Franden Farris Quillin Goodnight & Roberts.
One of the firm’s partners, Joe Farris, became a great mentor to Thompson. “As a new lawyer in the courtroom, I tended to be timid, but Joe knew my legal arguments, and he pushed me to speak up,” she says. “I am grateful for the support he provided me, and for the opportunity to learn from one of the best litigators in the business.”
Another partner and mentor, Paula Quillin, often called Thompson “scrappy” because she wouldn’t give up until she got results. As Thompson explains, “If we had a weak legal argument, I’d research the issue until I found the legal authority to boost my client’s position.”
Even as she built out her legal skill set, however, Thompson dreamed of finding a way to be of greater service to her community. She transitioned to Haynes Benefits PC, an employee benefits law firm. As the firm worked to untangle the complexities of the recently passed Affordable Care Act legislation, Thompson perfected her skills in advising employers, plan administrators, and insurers on issues affecting health benefit plans.
One of those clients, GEHA, was so impressed with Thompson that the company recruited her to come in-house and work for its team. “What intrigued me about GEHA is that it is not the typical health insurance company,” Thompson says. “As a nonprofit VEBA [Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association], GEHA is different because it exists solely to provide health benefits to its members who are federal employees.”
But going from working for a law firm to working in-house for a corporation demanded a change of perspective.
Indeed, when Thompson arrived at GEHA in 2016, the legal division was much smaller and less developed than it is today. Step by step, she impressed upon leadership the importance of managing vendors through enhanced contracting processes and ongoing oversight. She was able to successfully develop enterprise-wide contract and vendor management programs, and now she also oversees the Vendor Management Office, a department within the legal division. “I’m proud that we’ve transformed the legal division from a service function to a collaborative partner that helps solve problems and achieve business objectives,” Thompson says.
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Thompson’s achievements have caught the attention of her colleagues beyond GEHA. “Belinda is an excellent attorney who has really grown and elevated the legal department at GEHA, collaborating with departments throughout the company,” says Lynn A. Hinrichs, a member of Lewis Rice. “Belinda has an incredible ability to connect with people, and I admire her passion and her commitment to mentorship of the next generation of legal professionals.”
According to Thompson, who also serves as a sponsor of GEHA’s Unidos LatinX employee resource group, the secret of successful business change is communication, collaboration, and flexibility. “I am a natural mediator,” she explains. “When business units disagree on an issue, I say, ‘OK, how can we come together to find a reasonable solution that is best for GEHA?’”
Of course, traditional approaches to communication and collaboration were turned on their head during the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to Thompson, GEHA has quickly adapted to a remote setup and is in the process of designing more collaborative workspaces for when employees begin returning to the office soon.
Throughout all these changes, Thompson has maintained an open-door policy for mentoring. “The newer generation brings a wealth of technology skills,” she says. “What I can offer them is emotional intelligence.” She herself often turns to her father, her ultimate role model. His practical advice, she says, “keeps me humble.” So does her own ongoing drive to dig into complex problems and discover innovative solutions.
“I guess I am a little scrappy, a little rough around the edges,” she says, laughing, “but I also think people like that about me. I have a passion for enhancing our healthcare system, and I was so fortunate to grow up in the melting pot I did, where the dollar mattered and the quality of healthcare was so important. My diverse background enhances my vision for creative healthcare solutions and ensures that I stay flexible and adaptable in my legal advice.”