PA Vanessa Cobarrubias Becomes First PA in White House Fellows Program
PA Cobarrubias jumps at the opportunity to support her community at a national level
December 18, 2023
By Dave Andrews
Vanessa Cobarrubias, PA-C, has always been an outspoken advocate for expanding access to quality healthcare. But she never thought it would take her all the way to the White House.
Working throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic in her hometown of Harlingen, Texas—an area with one of the nation’s highest COVID-related death rates—Cobarrubias treated thousands of patients and visited more than 300 clinics to support her fellow providers and educate them about monoclonal antibody therapy.
But toward the end of the pandemic, the doses of antibodies sent from the federal government began to dwindle, even as demand remained high.
“There was one week when we had ordered 200 [doses], but we received only 20,” said Cobarrubias, who at the time was working at the Cameron County Infusion Center. “I tried contacting state officials and emails were sent, but what I needed was to speak to someone directly about the community’s needs.”
Coincidentally, that same week, former Congressman Filemon Vela (D-Texas) came into the Infusion Center, and Cobarrubias immediately seized the opportunity. She pled her case to Vela that more government support was needed to boost the supply of vaccines for the region.
Impressed by her tenacity, Vela made a recommendation that caught Cobarrubias off guard. “He responded by telling me his wife was the director of the White House Fellows program,” Cobarrubias said. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘He hasn’t listened to a word I’ve said.’ I wasn’t looking for a fellowship. We needed meds!”
Vela clarified, suggesting Cobarrubias apply for the fellowship because it would provide her with countless opportunities to engage directly with lawmakers on a national level. As a fellow, she could illustrate the issues affecting her community and the challenges providers were facing. Her unique insights would then help guide the policymaking process.
Stepping away from her patient-facing role in Texas to take on a policy-advising fellowship in Washington, D.C. would be a significant shift for Cobarrubias. But she was excited by the idea of having a direct line of communication to key policymakers—especially at a time when her community continued to lack critical healthcare resources.
Ultimately, Cobarrubias was selected from among more than 4,000 program applicants to be one of the 15 White House fellows in 2022-2023. The other fellows represented a variety of fields and backgrounds including law enforcement, business management, military, and others.
Her acceptance also meant she would become the first active PA in the program. For an entire year, she would be advising and working alongside government officials on a wide range of key health-related issues.
Cobarrubias’ two placements included the Office of the First Lady and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She would also regularly engage with top-ranking leaders including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and, on occasion, even President Biden.
Yet no matter where she was or who she was meeting with, she took every opportunity to detail the healthcare needs of her community back home and suggest practical solutions.
“I mentioned the people of the Rio Grande Valley pretty much every day that I was in the White House, probably much to the annoyance of the other fellows,” Cobarrubias said lightheartedly. “But they are my passion, and I was their voice.”
Being a vocal advocate for her profession and her community is something that comes naturally to Cobarrubias and was apparent to many of the other fellows.
“I was just absolutely blown away by how amazing she is, and I learned so much from her about how to tell the story of the people you care about most,” said Jaqueline Burgette, DMD, PhD, an associate director at the Food and Drug Administration and a former White House Fellow. “A lot of politicians serve a variety of groups and have various missions. But with Vanessa, it’s clear her mission in life is completely selfless—it’s to serve her community.”
Burgette, who spent much of her career in clinical academia, also noted that throughout their time as fellows Cobarrubias had a knack for quickly establishing trust with others—a critical trait of successful providers as well as effective policymakers.
“Trained clinicians know how to form that patient-provider bond, and Vanessa was able to come into those political spaces and form a similar bond of trust,” Burgette said. “She brought an authoritative voice of someone who had treated thousands of patients during a pandemic within a system that had gaps in its ability to address the crisis.”
Having worked in a region of the country reeling from COVID-19, Cobarrubias could visualize improvement opportunities that many others could not.
“Her voice carries more weight than someone else who simply has an idea but doesn’t have that level of real-world experience,” Burgette said. “She brings in that experience and delivers it in an effective way that only a clinician can. All that is to say, she is a natural policy maker.”
Although her fellowship has officially concluded, Cobarrubias maintains a seat on the White House Fellows Board and says she wants to “keep an eye on the bigger picture” in the world of healthcare policy making and advocating for the PA profession.
“I think sometimes [PAs] are overlooked,” Cobarrubias said. “But we’re really an integral part of the healthcare system and we have a unique perspective among providers. There’s a significant opportunity right now for more PAs to get involved and help keep the real issues in front of policymakers.”
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