Rafael M. Villalobos Jr. – Capital Health
There’s no shaking his faith. The adage from Matthew 7:7 about “ask and you shall receive, and your joy will be complete” worked for Rafael M. Villalobos Jr. His prayer was even answered sooner than he could have expected.
Private practice simply wasn’t where he wanted to be, but that was where Villalobos found himself for the four years-plus that followed his former employer, Aria Health, being merged into a $4.5 billion entity with another Greater Philadelphia network, Jefferson Health, in 2016. While Jefferson Health offered to retain him, it would have been at a lesser title and salary than what he’d had for nearly 11 years.
So, at the age of 49, Villalobos accepted a severance package and for the next few years worked as a special member for a couple Philly firms. Although he litigated and advised on healthcare cases, it wasn’t as fulfilling as being part of an operation, he says. By the summer of 2020, he was looking elsewhere.
“It’s also scary when you have a wife and six kids and are trying to build a practice from scratch,” Villalobos says. “I wanted back in healthcare and was praying a lot, asking God to send me to my calling.”
Someone certainly called and it didn’t take much soul-searching for Villalobos to answer in the affirmative.
His prayers answered
That someone was Alexander Gladney, the former general counsel of Capital Health, a Trenton, New Jersey-based network that operates two hospitals in the Garden State as well as other facilities across the region. He was not only offering Villalobos a position, but one created just for him, and should he accept, Capital Health wouldn’t interview anyone else.
“Talk about a prayer answered and quickly,” says Villalobos, who’s soon to celebrate his third anniversary as deputy general counsel of litigation and risk management.
The litigation role seems self-explanatory. Any healthcare network, particularly one that includes hospitals, can’t help but find itself either pursuing or fending off claims on multiple fronts. It’s the risk-management side of Villalobos’ responsibilities that might set him apart from other healthcare in-house counsels.
It’s a much riskier environment for healthcare providers, he says, explaining how clinicians and staffers often compromise their own safety while tending to others. Capital Health’s two hospitals—Regional Medical Center in Trenton and Capital Health Medical Center—both serve socially and economically challenged communities plagued by violent crime, and that’s had Villalobos stepping outside the traditional legal role in mitigating risk both physical and virtual.
While Villalobos says there haven’t been too many incidents in the emergency department—the highest-risk section of a hospital—he emphasizes the need for redundant precautions. There’s always the chance of someone trying to break into an ER to settle a score with a patient. Others struggling with behavioral health and substance abuse can be dangerous to themselves and others.
In the past couple years, Villalobos says he’s implemented comprehensive security policies that’ll soon include Evolv’s artificial intelligence-enhanced software for weapons detection. The hospitals already have other detection systems in place as well as amnesty boxes for weapons, upgraded and electronic locks, call boxes, brighter exterior lighting and panic buttons.
Soon he’ll have canine patrols specially trained to sniff for firearms, explosives and ammunition. He’s also overseeing mock shooting drills and staff training for restraining combative subjects and de-escalating crises.
Carrying his weight
And when Villalobos talks about the need for physical security, people tend to listen. He’s as formidable a man as he is faithful and friendly—a 300-pound weightlifter who bears a resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
All the better, Villalobos says, if a situation can be resolved without muscle, but whatever arises, he’s there to protect staff and visitors while holding violators accountable. He lauds the New Jersey legislature for criminalizing any type of assault on a healthcare worker.
“We’re encouraging staffers to lodge criminal complaints and we’ll prosecute and go to court,” he assures. “We’ll also go after people who destroy property. We are, after all, stewards of the public interest. Our facilities provide the most needed services to community.”
He’s always had something of a prosecutorial leaning, Villalobos having earned a bachelor’s degree in justice from American University in 1989 prior to Widener University School of Law. He interned with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., and completed a co-op with the U.S. Marshals Service, but upon graduating in 1993 found jobs in those departments were few.
But that might have been to his long-term advantage, Villalobos looking elsewhere and hired by a risk-management firm that defended medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania. From there it was stints with five law firms—all involved in healthcare litigation—before Villalobos’ 2006 to 2016 role as chief legal counsel, senior vice president and director of insurance and claims at Aria Health.
It took some risk, Villalobos acknowledges, when he declined the position offered post-merger. But he performed capably at Eckert Seamans and then Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, while enhancing his creds with an MBA in healthcare from Jack Welch Management Institute.
So, when Capital Health called three years ago, maybe it was as much a case of God helping those who help themselves as it was God sending Villalobos to his calling. At any rate, Villalobos intends to make the most of the opportunity, further enhancing his creds with a certificate from the International Center for Captive Insurance Education.
That’s a major concern at Capital Health, the network creating its own insurance company and registering it in the Cayman Islands and thus able to contain some costs, insure difficult risks and have direct access to reinsurance.
And it’s all part of the comprehensive responsibilities Villalobos has assumed at Capital Health. All-consuming as it might seem, he says it still beats chasing down billable hours while entailing the satisfaction of helping make a positive difference in some very challenged communities.
“It’s what I’m meant to do,” he says. “It’s my calling, I love it and I’m good at it. I’ll probably work until I’m 75 and I’ve 19 years to go.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer II 2023 Edition here.
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