Midterm Elections Made 2010 the 'Year of the Nurse'

    • May 23, 2011

If 1992 was the ‘Year of the Woman’—when women nearly doubled their ranks in the House and Senate—then 2010 might as well be dubbed the ‘Year of the Nurse.’

When the 112th Congress convened in January, the number of nurses serving more than doubled, jumping from three to seven in the House of Representatives. There are no nurses currently serving in the United States Senate.

“Nurses play such a significant, vital role in providing health care,” cheered freshman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R.N., B.S., J.D., a Republican from central New York who has worked as a hospital and school nurse. “It is essential that they have a seat at the table in future discussions of health care reform in Congress. Increasing their representation can only be healthy.”

Veteran congresswoman Lois Capps, B.S.N., M.A., M.A., a Democrat from California who is also a former hospital and school nurse, agreed. “I am always excited to see more nurses come into the policy world,” she said, but added that there are many allies of nurses and nursing who don’t carry the R.N. initials next to their names.

Many of those advocates serve on the House Nursing Caucus, which is co-chaired by Capps and Steven LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio. It comprises more than 100 members and aims to educate Congress on issues important to nurses and to ensure that nursing expertise is integrated into policy-making by promoting legislation and holding congressional briefings. A similar caucus was founded last year in the Senate; it has more than a dozen members.

Champions of nursing like these, Capps said, “recognize the importance of the profession and work their hardest to ensure that nurses can provide high-quality care to all who need it, regardless of their income.”

Prior to the 2010 elections, three nurses served in Congress. They were Capps; Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, R.N., B.S.N., M.P.A., a Democrat from Texas who worked as a hospital nurse and was the first nurse ever elected to Congress; and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, L.P.N., a Democrat from New York City and former nurse.

All three were re-elected in 2010, and they were joined by newly elected nurse-lawmakers Buerkle; Karen Bass, B.A., P.A. certificate, a California Democrat who is a former physician assistant; Diane Black, B.S.N., a Tennessee Republican who is a former emergency room nurse; and Renee Ellmers, B.S.N., a North Carolina Republican who was a surgical intensive care nurse.

Nurse-Lawmakers Meet Future of Nursing Report’s Mandate for More Nurse Leaders

These nurse-lawmakers are also nurse-leaders, the kind who were spotlighted in last year’s groundbreaking report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The report—called The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health—argues that transforming the nursing profession is a key way to improve health and health care.

One of the best ways to do that, according to the report, is for nurses to take leadership positions in government and in other arenas. That way nurses, the largest group of health care professionals in the country, will have more say in how to improve and redesign the health care system. “Accessible, high-quality care cannot be achieved without exceptional nursing care and leadership,” the report states.

Indeed, nurse-lawmakers have played critical roles in key public policies affecting the nation’s health and health care.

During last year’s debate over the health care reform law, for example, Capps championed provisions to improve the health care workforce, with specific emphasis on nurses—an effort that she says is one of her “proudest accomplishments.”

She also fought to include in the law provisions that increase funding for nursing students, improve opportunities for nurse faculty, and ensure that advanced-practice nurses can serve as coordinators for patient care in innovative new models of health care delivery.

Johnson and McCarthy are also strong advocates of the law. During the debate, Johnson used her nursing background to lobby colleagues to support the bill. “It’s an additional experience base” that helps people understand the big picture, Johnson said. “I shared that perspective with my colleagues, and often they came to understand” the nurse’s bird’s eye view of the bedside.

Buerkle said her experience as a nurse led her to question the law.

“My background as a registered nurse provided me with clinical experience, and the clinical experience makes me sensitive to the impact of health care reform measures on members of the medical community,” Buerkle explained, adding: “I oppose the Affordable Care Act because I believe that genuine health care reform will need to arise from the health care community itself and will need to involve systemic reforms.”

Despite their policy differences, Congress’ nurses agree that their backgrounds in nursing provide insights into the nation’s health care system that are valuable in public office.

Johnson’s nursing experience was a key aspect of her service on special panels relating to health care reform and emergency response practices. Capps was appointed to the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health, and McCarthy chaired the now-defunct Healthy Families and Communities Subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Now that the composition of the band of nurse lawmakers is more evenly balanced than in the past, with four Democrats and three Republicans, Capps hopes she and her colleagues can come together around other legislation related to nursing. Initial signs of bipartisan cooperation are encouraging. Five of the current nurse-lawmakers (three Democrats and two Republicans) are members of the House Nursing Caucus, which has a history of working to advocate for robust funding for nurse workforce development programs. And Capps and LaTourette introduced a bipartisan bill earlier this year that would narrow the nurse-to-patient ratio at health care facilities.

The caucus also works on legislation that addresses nursing workforce concerns and hospital retention issues; supports schools of nursing that educate the future workforce; and ensures all nurses be able to practice to the full scope of their education and licensure, according to LaTourette spokesperson Deborah Setliff.

Nurses play a critical role on the caucus, LaTourette said. ”We can always use more advocates for nursing issues, and the input and expertise of nurses is really important to the caucus.”

Capps agreed: “I look forward to working with my new colleagues on issues that I hope we can all support.”