Dr. Oralia Garcia Dominic: “The stroke of a pen is powerful!”

Highmark’s Chief Medical Officer gets high marks for helping the most vulnerable

Photo By Paul Vasiliades
Story By Randy Gross – rgross@harrisburgmagazine.com

“I didn’t knock.”

When the doors of opportunity loomed on the horizon, presumably out of reach, Oralia Garcia Dominic reacted both with strength and perseverance.

“I pounded.”

The youngest of 16 children, Oralia enjoyed growing up. “I knew who I was for my identity, I knew the values of hard work, a good life, and good love,” she says, “and just everything that makes you smile. But” she continues, “at the same time you had to deal with real issues.”

“And it was repeatedly.”

Life skills were important in Oralia’s family – whether they came from car washes or lemonade stands – because they could be translatable to future jobs. So, it’s a given that she and her siblings weren’t afraid of hard work. In fact, Oralia was earning tuition money cleaning on the day when someone lent an extra fist for knocking.

“Back then, we didn’t have the internet like we do now,” recalls Dominic. “Back then, it was who you knew that saw that potential that would say ‘I have a student that I think they could even run my lab.’ Those mechanisms still exist, but if it weren’t for mentors, I would probably be your statistic. If it weren’t for someone saying ‘I will open that door, but only because you knocked on it …’”

This is the story of how that first door opened for Dr. Oralia Garcia Dominic, our selected Influencer of the month – and how she has, in turn, opened doors to good health for thousands of vulnerable citizens in our communities.

Big dreams in Texas

You know the old saying … everything’s bigger in Texas. As a young girl in San Antonio, Oralia’s dreams for the future were definitely bigger. As part of a bigger than average family, she says “I was able to hear more of everything that was going on in life, based on the conversations that took place in the kitchen, where I was always at.” Her mother, a homemaker, was of course in that kitchen and was “one of these women that was teaching you how not just to be at home, but what you accomplish at home you can also accomplish in any Fortune 500 company.” And when her father retired from the local Air Force base and started his own construction business, Oralia found herself spending a lot of time around the construction sites. “So, I knew how to clean, and how to do a ‘make-ready,’” she says. Her evolving work ethic would instill a strong attention to details and good quality assurance skills.

“There’s one thing for you to grow up and have a normal childhood, which I did,” she says, “but there’s another thing where life hits you fast. And, when it does, you take life a little more seriously, you take it more as ‘I’ve gotta stay focused.’”

For Oralia, her focus became resolute, yet 100 percent unselfish. “I knew early on what my goal was, and that goal was to keep people safe and healthy. Period. How I was gonna do that was beyond me. (she laughs) But that is translatable, I think, to everything I’ve done in life.”

Even though life would throw her a painful curveball – both parents would die prematurely, her mother from diabetes, her father from respiratory failure, chronic bronchitis, and pneumonia – she wasn’t about to “swing and miss” when opportunity came knocking. Especially when that opportunity would ultimately steer her in the direction of preventing or postponing the kinds of diseases that took her parents from her.

Fittingly, Oralia was an undergrad cleaning houses at a construction site in a San Antonio suburb when the biggest door yet opened. Oralia recalls the sequence of events thusly:

“I mentioned to you that I started earning extra money, because they pay you 100 dollars for those walk-throughs … and the bookkeeper would see me and one day, she said, ‘what do you wanna do when you grow up?’ And I said, ‘I want to keep people safe and healthy, and I’m gonna go into healthcare.’ She said, ‘oh and then what do you wanna do?’ And I said ‘I wanna find the gene.’ And she goes ‘what gene?’ And I said, ‘the one that causes diabetes.’ And she looked at me and said “well, they have a UT Health Sciences center. They have a big physiology lab and I think they do that.’ And I said ‘yes, I know … I’ve been knocking on that door for a long time. But there’s no applications.’ She said ‘really? That’s where you want to be? How bad do you want it?’ And I said, ‘I’d die for it!’ So, she says, ‘hold on,’ and she dials, and she gets a number, and she says [into the phone] ‘yes, I have someone that I think you should open the door of opportunity for.’ And ‘yep, the UT Health Science Center,’ and ‘yep, the Physiology Department,’ and ‘yep, in your lab.’ And he says [on the other end of the line] ‘send her to me,’ and she says “oh, she’s right here.’ She gives me the phone, and I said ‘hello?’ ‘So, you’re interested in research, I’m told?’ ‘Yes.’ He says, ‘what for?’ And I say, ‘so we could help to keep people safe and healthy and stop people from dying like my mother did.’ And he says, ‘all right, can you get here in 15 minutes?’ And I said ‘sure, but whom am I speaking to and where am I headed?’ He says, ‘this is Dr. Gary Green, and you’re going to my lab.’ And I said, ‘okay sir, is that tomorrow? Did you say tomorrow?’ ‘No, I said 15 minutes.’ I said, ‘traffic time, it might be 45 minutes.’ He goes ‘you get the picture … I’ll wait for you. Bye.’ And I looked at her and I said ‘Robin?’ She says, “that’s my ex-husband.’ I went ‘no way!’ So, I had been cleaning houses and banging on doors all by myself, knowing it would be impossible to be in a world-renowned lab, and all it took was just for her to ask me.”

2,224 miles to success

After working in a world-renowned lab, it was only a matter of time before Oralia would find further success in her field. In her case, the path would take her some 2,224 miles, from Texas to Pennsylvania.

“I was recruited by Penn State, and I became a Post-Doc Fellow, an NIH Fellow,” she recalls, “and I did what we called a Post-Doc in Epidemiology at Penn State Health, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, College of Medicine, and then the 2nd was in Health Services Research. So, my first job was as a Post-Doc, because I got paid, right (laughs), and then my official job is when they continued to recruit me as full-time faculty, and to enjoy all the benefits that faculty are afforded there, and I did make history: I was the first Hispanic to ever hold a full-time position in the College of Medicine and the Department of Public Health Sciences.”

“I wanted to follow the science,” she says, putting things plain and simply. Ultimately, “the science” would land her at Highmark, Inc., and her current position as Medical Policy Research Analyst and Chief Medical Officer, where she would wind up on the cutting edge of policy and new medical technology.

“In 2013, Highmark invited the community leaders that were increasing screenings that were under-utilized for certain conditions … diabetes, cancer … and at that time I was leading the efforts for increasing colorectal cancer screenings. And they invited me, and they brought in everyone … Estamos Unidos de PA founders Esmeralda Hetrick and Dr. Hector Ortiz, Mauricio Conde, Cancer Coalition CATAYLST Founder RN Barbara E. Jackson, David Botero, America Aviles, to name a few. I was just a little pea in the pod at Penn State that was brought to speak about health, and when I walked out, I was approached to say, ‘can you help inform our health disparity work here?’”

She continues: “I became a consultant for Highmark. And I published two papers, and we did interventions out in the community, faith-based, and showed that we could close the gaps. Then, there was an opening, and they said, ‘can you come and join our team and lead these efforts.’ And so, I joined Highmark, and became an Adjunct Faculty at Penn State. And I worked here for three years.”

In 2016, Oralia would depart Highmark, returning to the world of research. But only briefly. When Highmark got back in touch to say, ‘we need someone to be our Research Analyst,” the ability to write policy that would affect millions of people (Highmark is the third largest – and soon to be the second largest – Blue Cross Blue Shield plan) was too tempting to resist.

“That stroke of the pen is very powerful … every decision you make,” she says. “Because that’s a person’s life. And, for some individuals it’s a number. But I think for those of us who lost our parents at such a young age, guess what, we know death. We know what that means when it impacts. And so, every decision that I make I also know that I’m going to be held accountable.”

One of the most accountable policies Oralia would become involved with would be CATE, a statewide COVID-19 testing and vaccination program for PA’s most vulnerable communities – including Pennsylvania’s Hispanic communities.

A strong sense of community

“Without the sense of community, then we’re just muscles, sweat, spittle, and skin, per se.”

Those words sum up Oralia’s strong sense of community best. And at no time was there more of a need to appeal to the needs of her community than during the pandemic.

“I think everyone was impacted by COVID, on all fronts,” she says, “and for Hispanics, in particular, we learned four things: We’re resilient, we know how to flatten a curve, we know how to listen, and we learned how to persevere. Those were lessons learned. Because it started as like ‘no one’s gonna wear a mask, no one’s gonna stay home, no one’s gonna listen … we’re not gonna flatten this curve!’ The strategy that we used for our COVID mitigations worked. And it is one that other plans followed. It was one that other states followed. And it was one that was embraced by the Department of Health as well.”

Often, her outreach efforts have also included the needs of senior citizens in her community. “I am responsible for the entire life cycle for Medical Policy, so I have to know the issues from age zero to 103,” she says. “And I do interact with them based on the volunteer organizations that I either serve on the boards for or go and help programs for, and more importantly the policies.”

Not only have Oralia’s efforts to support “community responsibility through increased access to health care” earned her the status of one of the YWCA Greater Harrisburg’s 2022 Women of Excellence, but her commendable outreach work has brought many additional honors, including induction into the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015, and Central Penn Business Journal’s Community Outreach and Education Hero in 2021.

Rest & relaxation for the weary

With so many vulnerable populations to assist – and millions of policy holders to maintain quality healthcare access for – it must be difficult at times to enjoy a little R&R. So, what does Dr. Oralia Garcia Dominic do for fun when she is able to get away from the office?

High on her list is “eating at every farmers’ market.” She also loves movies – especially documentaries – and is an avid traveler (“I’ve been to 35 countries,” she says with pride). Her late father would also be happy to hear that she partakes of the occasional do-it-yourself project. But on par with all those activities is the passion for Formula 1 Grand Prix racing that she shares with her husband.

“I know most of the circuits,” she says, “and I’ve met many of the drivers. And one in particular is Kimi Raikkonen, known as The Iceman … And my first race, I saw him race – and that was 20 years ago. But I just love the cars and the atmosphere.”