Our Country Needs More Nurses in Public Office

Apr 19, 2013, 10:00 AM

Margaret Wainwright Henbest, RN, MSN, CPNP, is executive director of the Idaho Alliance of Leaders in Nursing and co-lead of the Idaho Nursing Action Coalition. She served in the Idaho state Legislature from 1996-2008.


I stumbled into politics in the midst of my nursing career. After serving as a nurse practitioner (NP) for two years in California and Oregon, I moved to Idaho in 1986. But it wasn’t until after the move that I discovered that I could not practice in my new home state unless a physician recommended me to the Idaho Board of Medicine (IBM) for licensure. That was not the only barrier to practice: To get my license, I had to interview with the IBM and win its approval.

I took a faculty position instead. But I soon met NPs all across the state who were seeking a change to this restrictive licensing requirement. I somehow wound up as the spokesperson for our eventual legislative effort, which was defeated after its first Senate hearing in the early 1990s.

That experience taught me that if something needs to be done, if a law needs to be changed, no one is going to do it for you; you have to do it yourself. Since I had a part-time job, I had the time to get active in local nursing organizations, and one thing led to another. I was approached to run for office and, after deliberating with family and friends, decided to make the leap. I won by seven votes in 1996. Every vote counts!

When I arrived at the state Capitol, I found that my perspective as a nurse was extremely valuable, especially during health care debates. I recognized prior to running that nurses were educationally and intellectually prepared for public office, and that we had little if any self-serving agenda in health care reform debates. We had a legitimate altruistic interest in patient and community health. This was readily apparent to policy-makers and the public.

As a lawmaker, I sponsored more than 120 pieces of legislation. I worked on issues related to health insurance coverage, the needs of the uninsured and underinsured, health professional licensure and regulation, the needs of the mentally ill and, of course, nursing.

I served on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and successfully shepherded Medicaid budgets through the legislature. My biggest accomplishment was achieved in collaboration with other nursing colleagues and the Board of Nursing. It took three different legislative attempts to finally create a regulatory statute for nursing in Idaho that removed the involvement of the Board of Medicine and allowed the full, independent practice of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to the extent of their education and training. The third time was the charm, I guess.

I stepped down in 2008 after 12 great years in office, but my absence has left a void in Idaho state politics. We need more nurses in the Idaho Legislature, and in public office in general. Nurses are prepared, credible, and unique in the contributions we make. No one else in the health professions can speak with the voice that we have. Health care is big business in this country. There is a desperate need for the voice of health care consumers.  Nursing can and should speak for them.

I am now the executive director of a nursing leadership organization, a nursing foundation, and the co-lead of our state Action Coalition. As part of my work to improve health care by transforming the nursing profession, I am working to encourage future nurses to run for office, in Idaho and in other states. Our country needs us.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.