WASHINGTON—Ivan Cephas, PharmD, the acting chief of pharmacy at the DCVAMC, would be the first to say that what he does is not above and beyond the call of duty. Despite having been awarded the Bowl of Hygeia, one of the most prestigious pharmacy awards in the nation, for his service to veterans and the community, he would likely argue that his level of passion and care should be the standard.
Born in Oxon Hill, MD—not far from the medical center where he works today—Cephas traveled to Florida A&M in Tallahassee to study pharmacy. During his college years, he did a rotation at a VA facility in Miami, introducing him to the system where he would spend most of his career.
After college, he travelled back home and did his residency at the DCVAMC. While there, he helped found CMS Health Initiatives—a nonprofit organization made up of pharmacists providing health education in the DC community.
“CMS was in existence for 10 years,” Cephas said. “During that time we were able to help many indigent patients throughout the city. Specifically, we focused on HIV/AIDS. We had a contract where we were consulting for the DC government on HIV/AIDS.”
Following his residency, and still doing work with CMS, Cephas took a job as a clinical pharmacist at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore before a chance encounter brought him back to VA.
“I ran into one of my old bosses at the DC VA and we had a chat and he told me about the role of emergency preparedness pharmacist,” Cephas said. “It was a VISN position, but it was based at the DCVAMC.”
The job was a relatively new one—part of the federal emergency preparedness infrastructure that developed following 9/11—and Cephas worked to shape its duties. “I became a region resource for pharmacy in anything related to bioterrorism and emergency preparedness—drills, stockpiling, what to do in case of emergency.”
He was also keeping his hand in the clinical side of the job as a pharmacist in the hospital’s HIV clinic.
Not content with wearing just two hats, Cephas also took on duties of the residency director of the hospital’s residency program, a position he felt particularly drawn to, having been a resident at the hospital himself.
“I have a passion for teaching and a passion for educating, and I think it comes out in many different ways,” Cephas explained. “I want to pay it forward and support the next generation. Part of my giving it back probably has to do with the professors who raised me and helped me. I try and take care of my students and residents.”
Eventually he rose to the position of associate chief and in June was named acting chief of pharmacy services. He has since divested himself of many of his other roles, though he still teaches at Howard University. The job of pharmacy chief, he said, is big enough.
“It’s a different level of responsibility,” Cephas explained. “Even though I had been a manager, I had a lane I stayed in. As the chief, it doesn’t matter. Anything that’s pharmacy related is my problem.”
He’s finding himself tackling the same problems that VA administrators are facing nationwide, starting with staffing and turnover. “When I initially became acting chief, we were short a good number of staff, and we’ve been working profusely with HR to get more resources in. Get people in to support our veterans and support our staff so we don’t have staff burnout. That’s the highest priority.”
Since Cephas became chief, the pharmacy staff has received a long-overdue wage increase, something he hopes will help with recruitment and retention. Cephas’ overarching goal is to help make VA a place where people can imagine themselves having a lifelong career. “I want to make sure our staff feels they have the support from leadership,” he said. “Ultimately, we want this to be a place that people want to come to work and stay and have longevity and take care of the veterans.”
He referred to this dream as “maybe pie in the sky,” but it’s likely one shared by VA administrators across the country. “I’ve been in the VA for 15 years,” Cephas said. “I was trained as a resident in VA. I really have just been trying to do my best to service the veterans and do what I can. I don’t really have a reason to do what I do besides just caring.”