Deborah Love has worked closely with both lawyers and doctors over her career, and – by all accounts – has helped to bring out the best of both professions.
Love has distinguished herself in her 17 years as executive director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine, primarily for her vision and leadership in developing “Access Now,” a program that enables specialty physicians to serve the working poor.
Before joining RAM, Love made herself invaluable as chief of staff at the Virginia attorney general’s office under both Attorney General Mary Sue Terry and her successor, Stephen D. Rosenthal.
Neither a lawyer nor a doctor herself, Love helped bridge the gap between both professions and the people they serve.
Virginia Lawyers Media honored Love this month as “Influential Woman of the Year” based on votes of the 44 women of the “Class of 2012” in the “Influential Women of Virginia” awards program.
From a family with deep roots in the “tobacco belt” of Piedmont Virginia, Love began her career in Richmond with a B.A. from Meredith College. She taught at both the middle and high school level, and was inspired and motivated by the “fresh faces” of her students.
She traded the classroom for the human relations department of Richmond Memorial Hospital. Later, at what was then known as the Medical College of Virginia, Love expanded her health care resume with work in operational design – creating organizational systems that work.
“I absolutely fell in love with it,” she said.
Her administrative work was noticed by state government officials. Successful management in the state bureaucracy led to a call to work on the transition team when Mary Sue Terry was elected as attorney general in 1985.
Terry was so impressed, she made Love her chief of staff.
Stephen D. Rosenthal, a high ranking lawyer in Terry’s office, said Love was one of those “rare people” who could balance the legal work of the office with its effect on “real people.”
“She was the voice of reason in virtually every major decision,” Rosenthal said. She helped others to see the larger picture and consider the effects on ordinary citizens, he said.
“The best thing Mary Sue could have done is to have someone of Deb’s background and personality as chief of staff,” Rosenthal said.
A believer in Love’s abilities, Rosenthal kept her as chief of staff when he was appointed attorney general. He filled the balance of Terry’s second term when she resigned to run for governor. Love was in the AG chief of staff job for eight years, until 1995.
“It was an incredible, incredible experience,” Love said. She worked with the “best and brightest of lawyers” with a “bird’s eye view” of every aspect of state and local government.
In 1995, as party control changed at the attorney general’s office, Love returned to the health care field as executive director of RAM, then a sleepy organization of some 700 Richmond-area doctors. Housed in a historic building near what’s now VCU Medical Center, the Academy was primarily a vehicle for monthly meetings featuring dinner and speakers.
Love helped RAM members change the inward focus of the organization. “They had ideas and vision, and I listened,” she said.
The first new service under Love’s guidance was a centralized credentialing service for local hospitals. Next came a for-profit enterprise for RAM – providing organizational support for specialty physician associations.
Love said RAM welcomed the opportunity to be an “honest broker” as it opened doors to both hospital-employed doctors and those in independent, private practices.
RAM now enjoys “excellent relationships” with the two non-teaching hospital networks, according to Dr. Gigi deBlois, immediate past president of RAM.
In 2008, Love launched her signature achievement, Access Now. Doctors were already providing some free services to needy patients, but only on a haphazard basis.
“Physicians, by their very nature, are very open to helping in the community,” Love said. “It was recognizing what they did and organizing a system to let them do it efficiently.”
Access Now is linked to so-called “safety net” programs – free clinics and other services that help patients without health insurance. The primary care providers at those programs had no organized way to refer patients for specialized care.
Access Now provides the connection. A “safety net” doctor can request a referral through Access Now, and an appointment is made with a consulting doctor. To date, the program has served more than 5,000 people with services from more than 40 medical specialties, according to figures from a RAM spokesperson. Around 950 doctors participate.
Retired pathologist Carolyn Thomas, past chair of Access Now and a former RAM president, said Love looked at how similar networks operated in other cities. In “classic Deb form – thinking a little out of the box,” Love designed a system customized to the need for specialty care in the Richmond area, Thomas said.
Love often looks over the fence at how others have handled various issues, according to current RAM president Dr. Richard Szucs. “She is always bringing back things she’s seen and heard from other association directors,” Szucs said.
Thomas praised Love’s skills as an association director. She organizes behind the scenes and then “puts a physician out front” when it’s time to take credit, Thomas said.
Szucs agrees Love is a consensus builder, “always running things by lots of people, making sure everybody is on board.”
“She does her homework,” agreed Dr. Hazel Konerding, current chair of Access Now.
Love also helps doctors tell their stories to government leaders, RAM officials say. She organizes “extremely valuable” meetings between physicians and politicians, deBlois said.
“She brings a wealth of knowledge about the General Assembly and the legal system,” Thomas said.
Love said she’s working on a couple of new projects at RAM. “We will continue to look for opportunities to serve the community, serve the patients and serve the physicians,” she said.
Having worked for both lawyers and doctors, Love judiciously declines to say which group is easier to deal with. “They’re very different. They approach problem solving from very different angles,” she said.
“The bookends of my life have been two great professions,” Love said.