Q&A with Nancy Ann DeParle

December 21, 2012

Mary Jordan: You could have done so many things. How did you end-up as the healthcare czar and picking that up?

Nancy-Ann DeParle: You said we could have done many things. In my case, I’ve done many things. I actually started off as a lawyer. I’m from a real small town in East Tennessee. My mom, who raised three kids on her own, didn’t have a college education, but she just imbued in me this notion that I could do anything I wanted to do.

Mary Jordan: How did she do that? Did she just tell you that every day?

Nancy-Ann DeParle: She had very high expectations and let me know that she expected me to do well in school. But when I would talk to her about gee, I’d love to work in a White House someday or I’m interested in politics, I’m interested in being a lawyer, she said you’ll have to study hard. You’ll have to make good grades because you’ll need to get a scholarship because I won’t be able to afford it. The sky is the limit, that really was her view. It really made me think I could do anything.

So I did go to law school. In the early ‘80s, when I got out of law school, I went back to Tennessee to practice and was going around the law firms. Even at that point, there weren’t that many women in the law firms. I had guys who were interviewing me, [they would] sit me down and say, now, do you understand if you come to this firm, you’ll have to try cases, you’ll have to go to court?

I had clients who in the beginning, I’d go in to meet with them and afterwards one of my partners would tell me that they said, well, that wasn’t the team I expected, or words to that affect which meant, gee, we didn’t know there was going to be a lady lawyer on this case.

Mary Jordan: [Your] mother died of lung cancer when you were only 17, and she was such a force in your life. How did that affect you?

Nancy-Ann DeParle: I think it made me very strong in a way because it was very clear that I had no one to depend on but me. At the same time, it made me realize that there were a lot things I wanted to get done in life. I felt very much driven to succeed, I think in part because of her. Life is short and I wanted to be sure that I have this chance to experience it.

Mary Jordan: What’s your favorite part of the healthcare overall? What is the thing that you really wanted in it?

Nancy-Ann DeParle: I would say banning the practice of excluding people who have pre-existing conditions. That just doesn’t make any sense to say that someone who has been sick - like my mom had cancer - couldn’t go out in the market and buy insurance. But she was lucky enough to have insurance. That was a drive for me to see her worrying. She would go to work even when she was sick and going through chemotherapy and really needed to be home because she was worried about losing her job, losing her insurance, and then not being able to be there for us.

Mary Jordan: There’s all this noise and criticism, how do you stay focused?

Nancy-Ann DeParle: I think all of us probably have this experience of you just have to tell yourself it’s important to listen to everyone, be respectful and courteous, and try to understand problems that people have with it. But in the end, you have a job to do and that’s to get the best product that’s closest to what Congress intended as possible. That’s what I just keep doing.

Mary Jordan: So you do listen to criticism. Some people say, oh, I don’t even listen, but you do.

Nancy-Ann DeParle: We always need to listen. I learn something every day from talking to someone who I don’t agree with.

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