“It’s a big jump at a kind of high-profile hospital,” he said. “We all knew her, and there was a question, ‘Do we go with Marilyn, not having been a CEO before?’ I remember her talking to us, and her saying, ‘You know me, and I can do the job. This is where I want to be and the people I want to work with.’ ”
Tavenner was an apparent success as CEO: In 2004, she was again promoted, this time to serve as HCA’s president of outpatient services, her first national position with the company. She left two years later, when then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) appointed her to be Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources.
Many who worked with Tavenner in that capacity recall a practical state official with an open-door policy who liked to see meetings end with a defined course of action. In the midst of a recession, advocates remember her standing up for safety-net programs. “She was a pragmatist, and a lot of that was, I think, forced on her by the budgetary situation,” said Jill Hanken, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
Much of her work fell in line with general trends in state health policy, such as increasing enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program and improving care coordination in Medicaid.
In an interview with the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation when she came into office, Tavenner listed five areas on which she planned to focus: assisting the uninsured, mental health services, Medicaid reform, aging and workforce issues.
Her colleagues tended, however, to recall Tavenner more for her personality and management style than for the policies that she pursued. “One of the things she’s really good at is being respectful, respecting different views and being willing to listen,” Finnerty said.
“What always struck me was her attitude of, how will this help the patient? ” said Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association. “You better be prepared to talk about that when you meet with Marilyn. You can tell what she’s thinking: It can’t be about the dentist, it’s got to be about the patient.”
Dickinson recalls Tavenner visiting him when he was running a temporary dental clinic in southwestern Virginia to see patients with problems that had long gone unchecked. It was mid-July, and the open-air tent was sweltering.
“She came, and the one thing she said was, ‘Next year, when I come back, I want you to put me to work,’ ” said Dickinson.
He followed through on the request. “She would help us move patients around,” Dickinson said. “This is not inside a nice, air-conditioned place, it was usually raining, but she was not one to complain. She was just making sure patients got to the right place.”