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Celebrating nurse leaders in government


Every May, as we celebrate National Nurses Week, Congress issues a resolution that recognizes the vital role nurses play in the delivery of health care in our country. What many people may not know is that we also have a number of nurse leaders proudly serving as members of Congress and in the administration. In 1992, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) became the first registered nurse (RN) elected to Congress, where she continues to serve today.

Much has changed since that historic milestone. There currently are seven nurses serving in Congress, the most in the history of the profession. In addition, nurses serve in many state legislatures. They come from varying backgrounds, healthcare settings, and political parties, but all of them bring to their service the experience of being nurse leaders.

Nurse leaders in Congress advocate on a number of crucial healthcare issues, including safe staffing, safe patient handling and mobility, removing scope-of-practice barriers, and building up the nursing workforce through appropriations programs. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) has long been one of the leading voices for the needs of nurses and their patients. She cofounded the bipartisan Congressional Nursing Caucus, which has close to 100 members. Rep. Capps introduced H.R. 1821, the Registered Nurse Safe Staffing Act of 2013, and continues to speak out on the importance of addressing unsafe staffing levels that many nurses face across the country.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) worked as a nurse for more than 30 years before coming to Congress. She has drawn from those experiences to become a champion on a number of healthcare and public safety issues. Rep. McCarthy recently announced that she will retire from Congress for health reasons. ANA commends her for her continued leadership and advocacy on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) serves on the prestigious Steering and Policy Committee, which sets the direction of the Democratic Caucus. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland appointed Bass to serve as an assistant whip. Before coming to Congress, Bass made history when the California Assembly elected her to be its 67th Speaker—the first African-American woman in the country to serve in this powerful role.

But it’s not in just Congress where nurses are leading the way. President Obama nominated Marilyn Tavenner, MHA, BSN, RN, to serve as administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. She started her long career in health care and policy as a nurse in Richmond, Virginia, and now oversees a federal agency with a $820 billion budget, which ensures healthcare coverage for more than 100 million Americans.

President Obama also appointed Mary Wakefield, PhD, RN, as administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). As part of the Department of Health and Human Services, HRSA is the primary federal agency for improving access to healthcare services for people who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable. Wakefield started her career as a nurse in North Dakota with a passion for rural health. Under her leadership, HRSA is expanding and improving the health care provided to vulnerable populations. She also has been tasked with addressing the severe provider shortages we face across the country.

Having nurse leaders in federal government roles means we have come a long way since Rep. Johnson was first elected in 1992. This National Nurses Week, as we reflect on the critical work that nurses do across this country, let’s not forget the nurses serving in important roles in our government and the good work they do to make the delivery of health care in this country the best it can be.

To learn about all the nurse leaders in Congress, visit ANA’s website:

Jerome Mayer is an associate director in Government Affairs at ANA.

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