RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow Program Gives Nurse Leader the Skills to Improve Health Care in Her State

    • August 5, 2010

Debra Pendergast never expected to stand on the same podium as her governor, but that is where the former chief nurse executive of Phoenix Children’s Hospital found herself last spring while educating Arizonans about her state’s fiscal woes.

“Not-for-profit safety-net hospitals like Phoenix Children’s that care for our state’s sickest children are working harder every day to do more with less,” she said in a speech outside a public school. “That’s a very precarious position for us to be in as the only place in Arizona where a child can receive a kidney transplant, see a pediatric rheumatologist or be treated for HIV.”

In the speech, Pendergast, R.N., M.S.N., N.E.A., a nurse, a mom to two teachers, and a grandmother, called for a temporary sales tax increase to prevent further cuts to health care, public safety and education programs. Phoenix Children’s Hospital, she said, absorbed $15 million in cuts over the last two years, and faces another $10 million in cuts in the upcoming fiscal year. These cuts come as the patient load increases, she said.

A temporary tax increase would be “a short-term investment for a long-term gain,” Pendergast said, adding: “We have to decide what kind of state we want for our families. Times are tough, but this is when our children need us most.”

Temporary Sales Tax Increase in Arizona Passes on May 18

Pendergast’s message resonated widely with the public. On May 18, a ballot initiative known as Proposition 100 passed by a two-to-one margin. Under the measure, the state’s sales tax will rise from 5.6 cents per dollar spent to 6.6 cents—an 18 percent increase.

The tax will raise roughly $1 billion a year over the next three years. Two-thirds of the revenue it generates will fund education programs; the remaining third will support health and human services and public safety programs. The tax will automatically repeal on May 31, 2013.

Pendergast agreed to take on a more public advocacy role in May after hospital administrators asked her to speak alongside the governor and other advocates about how pending budget cuts to safety-net hospitals would affect patients. She didn’t hesitate to take on this additional job responsibility. “I realized I had this opportunity to get up and influence people,” she says.

Although this work was not part of her Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellowship, she credits the Executive Nurse Fellow program for giving her the courage to take on this work. The three-year program grooms nurses in senior executive roles to lead and shape the U.S. health care system of the future.

“During the program I recognized how important the voice of a nurse executive can be in impacting public opinion,” she says. “The media training I received gave me the confidence to go ahead and do this.”

In addition to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Pendergast has worked at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, the Scottsdale Health Care System and the Veterans Affairs Administration in the state. She spent two decades in the Naval Reserve Nurse Corps and has been an active member in state-wide health care workforce initiatives.