In her new role with PCC, Dr. Vela oversees teams that work in collaboration with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and local health center executive directors that serve patients in the Montgomery Cares and Care for Kids programs. Together these programs and organizations ensure that uninsured individuals in Montgomery County have access to primary and behavioral healthcare; specialty care; regular screenings for cancer, diabetes, and hypertension; needed medications, and some dental care.
“We are extremely pleased to have Dr. Vela join our team,” said Primary Care Coalition President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Graham. “Her expertise in forming equity-focused partnerships will tremendously benefit PCC, and her penchant for empowering and lifting her colleagues through teaching and mentoring aligns perfectly with how we do business.”
Vela has a doctorate in public health from George Washington University. She also holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in systems engineering, with a focus on human-centered design and coursework in nonprofit management from the University of California, Berkeley. Human-centered design is a methodology grounded in qualitative research to ignite innovation in service delivery. The method focuses on the importance of empathizing with users and removing one's own bias when evaluating their needs, priorities, and values.
Her passion for social justice and equity runs deep. “I was born in Berkeley, California but raised in Takoma Park by immigrant parents who worked in human rights. As a kid, I viewed the world through a lens of social justice. Both my parents worked to promote peace and human rights in Latin America. My father also started a non-profit where he prepared thousands of underserved youth to enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).” Her parents are from El Salvador and Venezuela.
Vela’s work experience includes Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and Ascension -- the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in the U.S. She also consulted for various organizations, including the federal government, on healthcare transformation.
Vela is proud of projects she worked on that improved healthcare access. She worked with Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Consultant and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health faculty member Steven K. Ragsdale on the Ward Infinity project for Sibley Memorial Hospital.
“Steven Ragsdale is an expert in understanding how our medical system was created unequally. It is not just about giving adequate care. It is also about allowing those you serve to have a voice in how you serve them,” said Vela.
The Ward Infinity program empowers community leaders in Wards 7 and 8 in D.C. to design and implement community health programs and services to meet the needs of the underserved community. They also determine how those services are delivered.
“This program was one of the first of its kind to let the community have a voice in how community health programs are designed and delivered,” said Vela.
Although she has been in her new position at PCC for less than a month, Dr. Vela is excited by the opportunities to improve healthcare access in Montgomery County with such like-minded partners.
“How do we make the system deliver more fluid care, and can we stitch the system together tighter so that the work we do at PCC strengthens the experience for our patients and the people who are providing the services?” said Vela.
“The human element is so critical. I want to strengthen the humanity of services, particularly on the administrative side. We don’t want to make it difficult for people who are ill and vulnerable to get care – we want to make the process easier for them,” said Vela. “I hope to advance us in that work.”
“My design and engineering background allows me to think about how we can align our services with their priorities and needs,” Vela added.
Although she has the credentials, experience, and passion to see big changes on the horizon, Vela had this to say about the future of healthcare access, “We are not here for the quick sprint. We are here for the long game.”
“Someone asked me recently why I’ve done so many things and worked so many places, and I realized that it’s to prepare me for this role at the Primary Care Coalition,” said Vela. “Managing and improving healthcare access for underserved communities is exactly what I am meant to do.”