When clinicians become politicians
Thursday, July 25, 2019
It’s often been said that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’ll end up on the menu, and this could not be more accurate when speaking of nurses, doctors, and other clinicians vis-à-vis local, state, or federal government.
So, what happens when healthcare workers run for public office, and who benefits in the end?
Clinicians, Politicians, and Lawmaking
Most legislators likely know as much (or as little) about healthcare as the general public. Like anyone else, politicians have health insurance (often much better than the rest of us, mind you), see medical providers, have surgery, take medications, and get diagnosed with all manner of conditions. We’re all human, after all.
When new legislation related to healthcare comes before a legislative body, how do legislators understand it sufficiently in order to make an informed decision about its viability as a new law?
Some lawmakers may be attorneys, ranchers, entrepreneurs, industrialists, or former executives; some may even be reality TV stars, sports figures, astronauts, or entertainers.
Like anyone, they have their own family history, relative privilege, professional experience, personal biases, and areas of ignorance. They may also be informed by religious beliefs, cultural values, as well as various political and economic forces.
When a piece of legislation comes before a mayor, school board, city council, state legislature, or the United States House or Senate, lobbyists and industry insiders use money, gifts, and good old-fashioned arm-twisting to sway lawmakers to vote according to those lobbyists’ political agendas.
Some lobbyists come to the table with great integrity and the best interests of the general public at heart; others have more nefarious goals in mind (e.g., putting profit ahead of public safety, for instance).
When legislation is introduced regarding public health, health insurance, clinician scope of practice, or other issues, who better to truly understand than lawmakers with a background in healthcare (and not just former CEOs of large hospital systems)?
Clinician Lawmakers Making Inroads
At the time of this writing, there are a number of United States lawmakers with healthcare experience, and there are likely more serving at the state and local level. These individuals are on the front lines of potential changes to our healthcare system, and their voices could not be more crucial to the conversation.
U.S. Rep. Bernice Eddie Johnson, D-Texas, is likely the most famous nurse in Congress at this time, but in early 2019, nurse Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., joined Rep. Johnson when she was sworn in as the youngest African American member of Congress in history. Representing Illinois’ 14th Congressional District, she entered Congress with a record-breaking 127 other women brought to power in a historic election.
According to AdvisoryBoard.com, 17 nurses and doctors were elected to Congress in 2018 as part of the new “freshman” class, and 14 clinicians were also reelected in the same election cycle, including Rep. Johnson. The following reflection says much about what a clinician lawmaker can accomplish:
“History suggests that clinicians may bring a distinctive perspective to health policy debates. Former Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), for instance, was a longtime nurse who founded the Congressional Nursing Caucus in 2003 and went on to advocate for legislation to address the national nursing shortage.”
Healthcare workers can find their voices as members of local school boards and city councils; they can also run for mayor, state senate or house, and other deliberative bodies. With enormous healthcare-related issues facing millions of Americans, having workers from the healthcare sector involved in legislative decision-making is a way for the public’s central issues to be addressed by lawmakers who truly understand their plight.
Moving Towards the Future
As the ongoing healthcare debate comes to a boil leading up to the 2020 election, we need more legislators educated in important healthcare-related issues. Child poverty, gun violence, the future of the Affordable Care Act, suicide, mental health, and other issues are likely to be more thoroughly addressed by those who understand them most acutely.
In fact, lawmakers experienced in the healthcare arena can educate their fellow legislators and bring a more nuanced conversation to the floor for debate and discussion.
For those healthcare workers feeling the call of public service, there has never been a more powerful time to join the fray as a candidate running for state, local, or federal office. All voices matter, and when a doctor, nurse, physical therapist, or mental health professional walks into a legislative body dedicated to the health and well-being of the citizenry, much good can result.
May more nurses, doctors, and other clinicians choose to pursue careers in politics while remaining free of the potentially divisive influence of corporate lobbyists who may not have the public’s highest good in mind. With clinical insight and boots-on-the-ground experience, clinicians bring a unique perspective difficult to overlook. The call to legislate can be strong; who will answer?
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