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Nurses a Natural in Politics

Maryland, Virginia RNs provide voice for nurses as legislators

Monday October 6, 2008
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Combining nursing with politics may seem like a novel career direction, but nurse politicians say there is no better way to advocate for patients and help shape the healthcare system of the future.

There Should Be a Law
Delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, RN, BSN, MAS, is a Democrat in the Maryland House of Delegates. As a nurse who practiced for more then 40 years, she finds the issues facing nurses and their patients are close to her heart.

"I decided to run for office because as a practicing nurse, I was frequently saying, 'There needs to be a law against this,' and 'This patient shouldn't have to go through that,' " she says.

In the Maryland General Assembly, Nathan-Pulliam has become an advocate for improving healthcare access and narrowing the gap in disparities for the underserved. She sponsored legislation that created the Healthcare Disparities Prevention Act and established the Office of Minority Health and Health Care Disparities. Other initiatives include legislating funding for breast cancer diagnosis and treatment programs, along with programs to reduce oral cancer mortality.

Nathan-Pulliam currently serves on multiple committees that impact healthcare, and fellow legislators often look to her expertise in the field when making decisions about such legislation.

"Healthcare decisions in government are usually not made by people who are healthcare professionals, but [my fellow legislators] know that I have experiences to draw back on when making these decisions," she says. "As nurses, we know how to make decisions that impact people's lives, from birth to death." Nathan-Pulliam's political experience also includes attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention as an elected official and being a delegate for Bill Clinton in past conventions.

"More nurses should run for office because we can make a difference," she says. "There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The fact that I am an RN moves me to champion for healthcare causes."

On the Front Lines
Adelaide C. Eckardt, RN, MS, CNS, is a republican in the Maryland House of Delegates. She also has more than 35 years of experience in psychiatric-mental health nursing and a keen interest in ensuring better treatment and continuity of care for mental health patients, among other healthcare issues.

"What drives people into politics is a need," she says. "I wanted to change how healthcare is done."

To this end, Eckardt is a member of the House Appropriations Committee and serves on many healthcare-related subcommittees.

"When we make healthcare legislation, I know as a nurse, there are some things that aren't going to work ... particularly when we are addressing budget issues," she says.

For example, if legislators are looking to cut the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene budget, Eckardt helps fellow legislators understand the dynamics between full-time equivalents, time usage, vacancies, and overtime usage.

In an event the state must close mental health facilities, Eckardt has a voice in how monies should flow to best support patients who would then be treated in the community.

"We all lose dollars when people are not adequately diagnosed and treated and assisted back into the workplace," she says.

Eckardt believes nurses have the answers to many of the nation's healthcare dilemmas, and it is vital that more nurses get involved in politics, beginning at the grass-roots level. She recommends nurses get their feet wet by volunteering at a political party's local office or a parent-teacher organization, or by working on a fund-raiser for a nonprofit group. Another step can include running for a city council seat or getting involved in the local chapter of a professional organization.

"The biggest impact you can make is on the front lines," says Eckhart.

Building an Infrastructure
When working as a nurse administrator specializing in the care of the intellectually disabled, Delegate Rosalyn R. Dance, RN, BSN, MPA, was asked to run for a spot on her local city council in Petersburg, Va. At first, the Democrat declined. She questioned how she could make a difference in politics.

But after much thought, Dance changed her mind and decided on a platform she could believe in.

Dance came up with what she dubbed "the triad of E's," – education, economic development, and employment – which she still believes in today as a delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates.

"If we are successful in educating our human infrastructure, then people will invest in us, which will improve our economic status and bring jobs to our community," she says. "That will improve the quality of life in our community because when you have built those strong factors, then you can provide healthcare and public safety."

Dance has introduced budget amendments that would allow increased funding for intellectually disabled people. This includes Medicaid waivers so they can get needed health benefits to help transition and live productively in the community.

"This has been one of my greatest achievements ... being a voice and (being) able to articulate to my colleagues that this was something that needed to be addressed," says Dance. Most recently, she attended the DNC as a delegate. Dance believes all nurses should strive to become a part of the political process.

"It's one of those paths that nurses travel very well because we are taught the holistic approach, and we have to treat everybody with dignity and respect and understand all their needs to help them," she says.

Catherine Spader, RN, is a contributing writer to Nursing Spectrum.

To comment, e-mail editorDC@nursingspectrum.com.