Q&A with OHSU’s new General Counsel

Alice Comas-Cuprill, general counsel, OHSU

Share this article! The walls are still bare in the office of Alice Cuprill-Comas, who became senior vice president and general counsel for OHSU on December 7. “I haven’t put up my art yet,” she laughs. Cuprill-Comas has served as the university’s interim general counsel since last spring. Before that she was a member of … Read more

The walls are still bare in the office of Alice Cuprill-Comas, who became senior vice president and general counsel for OHSU on December 7.

“I haven’t put up my art yet,” she laughs.

Cuprill-Comas has served as the university’s interim general counsel since last spring. Before that she was a member of OHSU’s legal team, a partner at Ater Wynne and chief counsel for Prometheus Energy.  

Here she talks about health policy uncertainty, mission-driven lawyering and her goals as a Port of Portland commissioner. (Interview excerpts have been edited.)

OB: Health care is a highly regulated industry. How is health care reform in policy and technology shaping OHSU’s approach to compliance?

CC: There are additions to regulation — certainly the privacy and security that went into effect a number of years ago were monumental. We haven’t seen anything of that magnitude lately, and given the difficulties we have in Washington getting anything new going, I don’t know that we expect anything like that to happen. Most of what we deal with is the uncertainty of the regulatory framework, and how regulations will be enforced.

Re technology: The problem is the technology keeps changing, so you have to manage around what a technological change means with respect to health data. For example, devices that track our health info or information doctors send people home with — that is data we need to protect. So it’s about making sure vendors and technologists are taking those things into account and making sure we have right coverage for our patients.

OB: Before taking over as interim counsel, you worked on OHSU commercial transactions and real estate, including South Waterfront. What is your perspective on that development now?

CC: It’s been really exciting to see that area of city transform. It’s such a center of health care and research in terms of the building going on there. The collaboration is also unique; the  Collaborative Life Sciences Building is not just a collaborative model among institutions [PSU, OHSU] but we also have nursing students, medical students and dental students in that building.

OB: You won’t have an office in South Waterfront. [Cuprill-Comas’ office is in the Baird building on the upper campus.]

CC: I have to be close to the president, whose office is downstairs. Although I suspect if he wanted an office down there [South Waterfront] he could have one. 

OB: Like a pied a terre.

CC: [laughs] Yes, like a pied a terre. Our board of directors often meets there.

OB: Why did you leave the private sector for OHSU?

CC: About ten years ago, I left Ater Wynne to become general counsel for one of our clients: an alternative energy group in Seattle, Prometheus Energy.  I really liked that work. It was different work from a lawyer’s perspective — being at the table in strategy conversations rather than being a reactive lawyer.  We sold the company, so I went back to the firm, which was great.  But I still had that idea to do something different and mission-oriented, which was what alternative energy was. OHSU feels like that that times 50.

I go to meetings sometimes in the hospital building across the hall and think of all the people standing around. Most of these people are going through some of the most difficult times in their lives. Anything that we can do to make that easier for people and to deliver the best in medicine and science from a lawyer’s perspsective is a great thing, an amazing opportunity.  I was a securities lawyer for a long time, and that’s interesting. But it’s not the same as feeling you are making a difference to something that basic to people.

OB: We published an article last spring about more businesses shifting legal work in house.

CC: There is a trend for that because outside legal expenses are so high, and unless you have a day to day relationship with [the firm] you have reintroduce  a lot of background to people. We have relationships with law firms outside.  But I see law firms are in a difficult place because of how expensive they are.

You are from Puerto Rico. Do you still have family there?

CC: Everyone except my mom and brothers and sisters. We were lucky that my home town is the third largest city, Mayaguez, so services came back earlier after the hurricane. But it’s still terrible. It felt like there was a hole in the world, because there was no way to communicate with everyone. Nowadays we’re so used to communicating so easily. So having no news from anyone for two weeks was really hard.

OB: Let’s talk about the Port.  You have been a Port commissioner for two years, and may be in line to be the next chair.  Do you want to be chair? [Chair Jim Carter’s term ends this year The chair is appointed by the governor.]

CC:  I’m super interested in the Port. Like OHSU, it’s super complicated, which to quants like me is super cool. So I’d love to do it, but I’m also happy to serve as commissioner. 

OB:  What are your top priorities?  

CC: Superfund, PERS, and more immediately, the issues around wages at the Port with reference to folks who aren’t employed by the Port but are employed by vendors, like concessions. What will happen with the marine terminals in the state.

OB: Say more about the vendor issue.

CC: The food vendors, the Starbucks, the Blue Star Donuts, are private businesses that have concession agreements with the Port, and they employ people directly. In a lot of airports all over the country, there is just one concessionaire, and they hire all staff and that leads to what we all see: a homonegous and not an enjoyable experience.

The folks that work for the concessionaires have been organizing the last few years around wages, represented by UNITE HERE. One of their contentions is that there are numerous concessions, and that the Port requires those concessionaires to charge street prices. So Country Cat at the airport costs the same as Country Cat in SE Portland; one question is whether that is actually suppressing wages for employees.  We are trying to gather data to see if that’s the case, and if that’s the case what is the Port’s obligation and reaction to that issue.

The issue came up about two months ago. We’re setting up meetings we are going to have memebers of the Commission and folks from the union and representative from restaurants to see what the issues are so we can figure out what is really going on.

OB:  Are you active in diversity initiatives at OHSU and the Port?

CC: I have been actively engaged in it through the Bar but not in the business community. I’m keeping my brain where it actually knows what some of the barriers are. From the perspective of the Port, it’s obviously a big issue for them.   My issue is how the port as an economic driver  affects all the people of Oregon and not just a small number.

So for example, my interest in the land the Port owns is about what facilities will be located there and what jobs can they provide and who can those jobs be provided to, as opposed to: Let’s make the most money off of selling the land.