Alumni Q&A: Mary Rouvelas '96 Uses Her J.D. to Take on 'The Big C'


Mary Rouvelas '96 is senior counsel for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

December 1, 2011

Cancer strikes one in three people during their lives, and although Mary Rouvelas '96 doesn't practice medicine, she's made it her career's work to mitigate the impact of the disease.

As senior counsel for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Rouvelas recruits lawyers from firms whose valuable pro bono work is saving lives and reversing the culture of employment discrimination that so often hounds survivors, she said.

Rouvelas previously served as associate counsel for the American Cancer Society, beginning in 1998, and in addition to advising her organization on 501(c)(3) compliance, she created the 501(c)(4) whose judicial advocacy efforts she now coordinates.

She recently spoke to Virginia Law about her 13-year career in public health policy, which was preceded by a brief stint at Patton Boggs, and a pre-law detour" as a private snoop.

You worked as a private investigator before law school. Did that influence your decision to study law? What were your goals going into law school?

This question made me laugh — my father encouraged me to go to law school from a young age. The P.I. job in Venice Beach was an unsanctioned detour, but one that I truly loved. I investigated mostly auto and property insurance fraud, and it did affect my impression of lawyers. Prior to Venice Beach, my legal exposure was to top-flight professionals doing public policy work in D.C. where I grew up. In Los Angeles, I met a whole different breed. I was in law offices in strip malls next to dollar stores, where the attorneys had billboards and bad toupees. I decided public policy was a better fit for my overall goals.

What experiences at Virginia Law helped prepare you for your career?

Two things stand out: sharpened analytical ability, and the value of great peers. The legal training honed my ability to understand and solve complex issues, and my friends taught me to keep it fun. I still value a number of my UVA colleagues as my closest friends, and among the people I respect most.

You began your career at Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C. How did your experience at the firm help when you made your career move to the nonprofit sector?

Patton Boggs taught me that you can learn any subject matter if you devote enough time to it and are confident in your abilities. Working with a wide range of clients on a large number of issues boosted my ability to understand a legal landscape quickly. When I was hired into the nonprofit world, I had a tremendous amount to learn, but felt capable based on my previous experience.

If you were in law school today, pursuing jobs similar to the one you have now, how might you have tracked your career differently?

I think it is wonderful how UVA Law and other schools have increased their placement services into the nonprofit sector. This service was not available at UVA Law when I graduated, so it was a lot easier to go to a law firm. Now, I would aggressively seek out nonprofit opportunities for summer placement, as well as seek either permanent work or fellowship placement after graduation.

You helped build the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and later, the network's Judicial Advocacy Initiative, which you direct, in order to extend the reach of the society. Talk a little bit about their missions.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) both share the mission of eliminating cancer as a major health problem. ACS is a 501(c)(3) charity furthering this mission through a variety of means, from funding cancer research to providing patient services such as rides to treatment.

When I helped create ACS CAN, a 501(c)(4) organization, in 2001, it was to provide greater lobbying and electoral activities to further the same mission through public policy. ACS CAN now boasts nearly a half-million grassroots advocates nationwide, with volunteers in every state and a sophisticated voter education program.

The Judicial Advocacy Initiative (JAI), which I began in 2008, recruits law firms to do pro bono public policy work for ACS and ACS CAN. JAI recognizes that attorneys have a special capacity to serve this mission by providing unique expertise. Our volunteer attorneys do a wide range of projects, from drafting comments to regulatory agencies to educating courts with amicus briefs in key areas.

How do you engage private-sector lawyers in pro bono advocacy for the society?

The mission is so important and engaging that I don't need to work hard at getting attorneys involved. In fact, ACS and ACS CAN have been extremely fortunate to have more law firms volunteer their pro bono services than we can handle at this point.

I spend most of my time understanding the program needs and then finding the best legal experts to help with those needs — from the constitutional issues surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to the intricacies of the Common Rule, which governs the conduct of medical research on human subjects in clinical trials. One of the best things about my job is getting to learn about a variety of subjects from legal and scientific experts.

What victories in the area of judicial advocacy make you the most proud?

Two areas really stand out: access to health care and tobacco control. In the area of access to health care, one example was when a breast cancer survivor in Tennessee called ACS's toll-free hotline to complain that the state had yanked her Medicaid eligibility because she had a cancer supplemental insurance policy.

As you may know, states have been so short-funded in recent years that they have been cutting Medicaid rolls using basically any excuse. Although ACS did not represent her individually, one of our JAI attorneys drafted a petition to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicaid, to complain about Tennessee's unlawful action. Within days of this letter being submitted, Tennessee re-examined" its policy and reinstated her coverage. We were delighted that the individual survivor got her coverage back, but also glad to put the states on notice that we are watching their actions and will not stop advocating for the screenings and treatments that poor women need.

In the area of tobacco control, ACS and ACS CAN have filed numerous amicus briefs in cases around the country, helping to educate courts about the scientific evidence surrounding tobacco use and its deadly toll on our society. Particularly in First Amendment cases, this scientific data is crucial for courts to understand why certain restrictions are necessary and narrowly tailored to serve the public interest.

Fairness in employment and insurance coverage for cancer survivors are two areas of concern that ACS CAN monitors and tries to address. What areas of cancer advocacy do you hope will be advanced in the next few years, and how do you think healthcare reform will play into it?

The impact of health care reform cannot be overstated for cancer patients and survivors. Years ago, ACS conducted extensive studies linking health insurance status with cancer outcomes. Although this link may seem obvious — that people with health insurance get more screening and more treatment when they need it, leading to better outcomes — it took years of epidemiological studies to scientifically prove it. Based on this data, ACS and ACS CAN strongly supported health care reform legislation, despite what ended up being an extremely partisan battle in Congress and across the nation. Indeed, I've been with ACS over a decade and those town hall meetings about health care reform were the only time I have ever heard of our grassroots volunteers literally being spit on in public for expressing their views.

These battles have continued in courts across the country. Over 30 lawsuits were filed challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and after extended internal debate, ACS and ACS CAN decided to file as amicus in the major cases. Once our brief was drafted, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association decided to join.

We will continue to participate in these cases, and most court watchers believe the U.S. Supreme Court will accept cert this term, with a decision before adjournment in the summer. I'll be first in line to watch oral arguments, because the health of so many Americans will be at stake.

Another key area is tobacco control. Tobacco use causes approximately 443,000 premature deaths per year, more than HIV, illegal drugs, alcohol, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined. Grim statistics, but the good news is that Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products a couple of years ago, including marketing and advertising of the products. Right now the agency is working on regulations to create greater transparency and prevent kids from beginning to smoke. However, there are a number of current lawsuits brought by the tobacco industry challenging the FDA's restrictions on First Amendment grounds, so public health organizations still have work to do in helping the government to defend these provisions and save lives.

What are some of the challenges facing the nonprofit sector now, in terms of legal issues?

Like the rest of the economy, nonprofits have suffered greatly during this financial downturn. I think almost everyone is being asked to do more with less, but especially nonprofits serving poor communities. I urge all UVA Law alumni readers to make sure you are serving in some pro bono capacity, whatever the cause — our communities need us now more than ever.

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