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Dr. Andrea Willis: from a ‘fluffy’ first patient to a public service career

An acclaimed career in medicine and public health policy doesn’t often begin on a farm in Athens, Ala., with a cat in labor and a pair of dishwashing gloves.

Dr. Andrea Willis, SVP and chief medical officer at BlueCross, remembers that day well, especially her feelings of determination and a desire to help that would chart the course of her life.

“I grew up on my grandparents’ farm, and there was a little shed behind the house,” Dr. Willis recalls. “One day I heard a mama cat back there just making all this horrific noise. She was struggling to birth a kitten. I went into the house to get gloves and some scissors.”

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with the ‘tools,’ but I knew I was going to help her deliver that kitten.”

In the end all it took was gentle massaging of the cat’s belly for the kitten to emerge. Dr. Willis remembers her family marveling at a small child being calm and collected enough to help deliver a baby, even just a furry one.

“That kitten – Fluffy – was my family’s pride and joy, because she was my first patient,” Dr. Willis says. “I knew from those moments in the shed I was going to be a doctor. I never turned back.” 

Remembering her roots

The logistics of Dr. Willis’ own birth were far more difficult. Her mother and grandparents were forced to travel to a neighboring county during labor. At the time, Limestone County hospitals did not deliver non-white babies. Dr. Willis’ official birth certificate reads “colored.”

Dr. Willis believes this experience shaped her as a person just as much as her helping to bring Fluffy into the world.

Andrea Willis Natalie Tate BlueCross

“For my mother and my grandparents, driving an hour out of town to the hospital wasn’t a surprise; it was just a fact of life,” she says. “Their focus was on having a healthy, happy delivery and baby, which is great. But the gravity of that long drive still sits with me.”

A work ethic instilled by working on her grandfather’s pig farm as a child toughened Dr. Willis and gave her a firm sense of determination at an early age. It also had a seemingly opposite effect – teaching the value of compassion.

“I’ve always felt we were put on the earth to help others,” she says. 

“If you have the talent and ability to bring about positive change, then that’s what you do. I felt like I had that in me.

A commitment to the health of children

Dr. Willis attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham before moving on to medical school at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. She obtained her Master of Public Health in Maternal and Child Health at Johns Hopkins.

In her third year at Georgetown, she interned with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).  Her experiences there cemented her long-held desire to contribute to the wellbeing of children. She also got her first taste of what would become a defining part of her career: advocacy for public health.

Dr. Willis, accompanied by Dr. Natalie Tate, PharmD, vice president of pharmacy management at BlueCross, speaks about the opioid crisis before the Tennessee State Legislature.

“I witnessed pediatricians testify before Congress and advocate for labels on music containing explicit and suggestive language,” she remembers. “They believed the number of teen suicides had a connection with lyrics. A light bulb went on for me that day. I thought, ‘I want to do this – they’re helping thousands of children with this testimony.’ I knew then that one day, I was going into the policy and advocacy arena.”

Dr. Willis completed her residency and went into private practice. She’s quick to applaud pediatricians who see patients in their offices or in hospitals, but she knew when it was time to honor her calling and find a way to make positive changes for many children at once.

In 2003 she circulated her resume in the Nashville area. It caught the eye of the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, who hired her as deputy commissioner for the state.

An achievement in record time 

Through this role, Dr. Willis began interacting with then-Governor Phil Bredesen and his cabinet. He invited her to attend a National Governors Association event on child health. Shortly thereafter, she received another invitation from his office. This time, it was to start CoverKids, an initiative that would become one of her proudest achievements.

CoverKids, Tennessee’s State Children’s Health Insurance Program, offers free coverage for qualifying pregnant women and children who do not have insurance.

“We were filling a void for kids whose parents couldn’t afford private insurance, but who didn’t qualify for TennCare,” Dr. Willis says. “I’m still amazed every day that we got that program up and running so effectively in seven months.”

The next chapter

It was through Dr. Willis’ tireless efforts to make CoverKids a success that she connected with BlueCross.

“I worked with the governor’s office to put together the framework for CoverKids, but we needed a carrier to actually administer the benefits,” she says. “BlueCross was the only health plan that actually answered our call to be a partner. We were truly in the trenches together, elbow to elbow.”

That sense of camaraderie and shared commitment to improving the lives of children was still fresh on Dr. Willis’ mind as Governor Bredesen’s term was ending and she was considering her next move. In 2009 she joined BlueCross as a medical director before ultimately becoming a senior vice president and the chief medical officer (CMO).

Dr. Willis stresses that all coverage decisions made on behalf of members are based on scientifically sound evidence but come from a genuine place of caring.

“The mantra within my area is, ‘Every member, every day – quality care counts,’” she says.

“As CMO, I’m fortunate to lead conversations and help guide efforts to determine how we can help people have access to the right health care at the right time. That is truly what we do.”

Firsthand experience 

Dr. Willis and her son, Cam

Another role that powerfully resonates with Dr. Willis is that of mother. Her son Cam is entering his sophomore year at NYU and plans to go into medicine.

“I told him many times the great responsibility that comes with that track – and there have been a few times I thought he would change his course – but he always comes right back to it,” she says. “He says, ‘When you’re called to it, you’re just called to it.’ I cannot wait to see what Cam is going to do in this world.”

Dr. Willis and Cam love to travel together, checking destinations near and far off of their list of places to visit. This fall they hope to take Cam’s grandparents to New Orleans.

Consistency in care

Throughout her career – one which has seen its share of accolades, including recognition in February by Modern Healthcare as one of its Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare, and in April as one of the Nashville Business Journal’s 2018 Women of Influence – Dr. Willis has been guided by one prevailing principle. It’s a principle she’s followed from her experiences treating family pets in need to leading the medical efforts of a company representing 3.5 million members.

“You can never lose your humanity,” she says.  “Whether we’re talking about medical science, public health, decisions regarding coverage or working with our provider partners, everything has to be looked at from the perspective of the person who is most affected. And in doing so, my goal is for us to not be at odds, but to work together.”

About Jesse Thompson, Principal Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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