Last issue’s health policy column highlighted nursing’s increased engagement in the public policy arena. To continue this conversation, this column highlights a registered nurse running for Congress to help champion access to affordable health care. Yes, Lauren Underwood, MSN/MPH, RN, of Naperville, Illinois is running for Congress to represent the 14th Congressional District of Illinois.
Her Journey to Pursuing an Elected Position
Underwood is steadfast and fiercely committed to helping shape policies and programs focused on ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care. She is a registered nurse who received her BSN from the University of Michigan and her MSN/MPH from Johns Hopkins University. Her nursing experiences include service as a health policy advisor, research fellow, senior director, and research nurse at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Her passion for public policy was heightened while serving as a health policy advisor in the Office of the Secretary at the Health and Human Services in Washington, DC initially under the leadership of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius followed by the leadership of Secretary Sylvia Burwell. In this capacity, Underwood worked on private insurance reform, summary of insurance benefits, health care quality in the Medicare program, the Agency for Health care Research and Quality, and preventive services (free screenings, immunizations, and contraceptive coverage) for four and a half years from 2010-2014.
Tell us about working for the Obama administration.
Got a call the week that Mr. [Thomas Eric] Duncan was in the hospital in Dallas with Ebola asking if I would be willing to join the President’s team to help with disaster response, so I transferred over to ASPR, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, at HHS. We worked on emerging infectious diseases (e.g., Ebola, Zika Virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS), we also did national disasters (e.g., wildfires, hurricanes, floods) and then bioterror (small pox, anthrax) and worked with drug companies to develop vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics. I stayed in the administration until the very end, the last day. And so, when the election happened in 2016 we were working on the water crisis in Flint. I was surprised, and I thought that Hillary Clinton’s team was going to win and that we were going to hand off our work on health reform and on Flint to people who cared and wanted to continue the process. And then we got the Trump team who made it very clear they wanted to do away with health care coverage. And that’s not why I went into nursing or why I did this work. So, I knew I could stay in government and help them do that. I wanted to continue the work and so I came back home to Illinois because Illinois is a state that expanded Medicaid. I got a job working for a Medicaid managed care company in Chicago as the Senior Director for Strategy and Regulatory Affairs for a company called Next Level Health.
Are you still there?
I left my job about six weeks ago. The primary campaign was about eight months. I worked full time six and a half months; you know you have to do that. I am a young person, not someone of particular means or whatever, so it was necessary. And then it was like “Lauren, you could really win if you put your time and energy into the campaign.” And so that was an easy choice to transfer to full time.
So, you are now devoting full time to the campaign?
This reflects your journey. Describe in a few words what really made you run for an elected position.
I am going to tell you a story. Last spring when I returned home, I went to congressman Randy Hultgren’s one and only public event. It was a moderated event hosted by the League of Women Voters. And during that evening, he made a promise and said that he was only going to support a version of Obamacare repeal that allowed people with preexisting conditions to keep their coverage. That’s important to me as a nurse. I also know how critical it is for people with chronic illness to have access to medications and procedures that they need. Obviously, I worked to implement the Affordable Care Act so I read the law and I know that it works. I know that we can fix what does not work. We do not have to throw the whole thing away. Like so many Americans, I have a preexisting condition myself. I have a heart condition, SVT (supraventricular tachycardia), and it is well controlled. As you know, it is a preexisting condition, so I would not be able to get coverage under these repeal scenarios. And so, when the congressman made that promise I believed him.
And then a week to ten days later he went and voted for the American Health Care Act, which is a version of repeal that did the opposite. It made it cost prohibitive for people like me to get coverage. And so, I was upset not at the vote itself, but because he did not have the integrity to be honest the one time he stood before our community. That’s not what a representative is supposed to do. A representative is supposed to be transparent, accessible, and honest. And we deserve better. I said, “you know what, it’s on! I’m running” and launched my campaign in August and just won the primary on March 20th. I was in a field of seven—the only woman running against six men—and I won 57% of the vote.
Were you the only African American?
I know you are concerned about overall access to care and have a deep commitment to utilizing your expertise and experience while working in the Obama administration.
I believe that health care is the number one issue in this election across the country and in our district, and we need a solution to make health care more affordable for American families. It is not enough for families to rake together money for their premiums and have an insurance card in their pockets and cannot afford the coverage.
I believe that a lot of the conversation in the last several years has been political in nature and undoing President Obama’s legacy and not on at all focused on trying to lower costs and make health care accessible for American families. That’s my objective! I want to work on drug prices. I want to work on this opioid drug crisis so that loved ones can get the treatment that they so desperately need. And so, I believe there is a lot of value in having a nurse at the negotiation tables when we are making these decisions and passing policies that will transform our health care system. I am excited about the opportunity to be a leading voice on Capitol Hill on these important issues.
What do you think are the most pressing issues impacting nursing and health care?
Affordability. Any program that is starved of resources will fail. The ACA has been intentionally sabotaged and as a result, we see extraordinary high premiums that are unaffordable for most families. That is not how the program was designed to work and so I think there are technical fixes we can do to make the program more affordable. We can do things like negotiate drug prices, it can be done, we need to take a strong position on this opioid drug addiction crisis. We need to implement reforms like how we pay for rehab and how we award funds to municipalities in order to create a pathway for lasting change. And then there are opportunities to expand coverage so we will have fewer uninsured Americans. What we are seeing now in order to resuscitate it takes 2-3 doses of Narcan because the drugs are so strong. Municipalities who have received Narcan grants are running out of Narcan. A Narcan only solution is not a solution. Law enforcement only solution is not a solution. Addiction is an illness and we need to treat it as such. We need to send people to treatment so they can have a shot at recovery. We could have an evidence-based policy solution. We know treatment can be effective.
What do you think is the most pressing issue affecting nursing today?
I think there are a few things. The high cost of our education. We have not really seen increases in funding. What we have seen are marginal increases or flat funding. I think that this is unacceptable, in particular in the context of what we are seeing in higher education more broadly. And not just at the federal level. In higher education, many states have reduced putting money into public education, shifting the responsibility to families and individuals and with that coupled with flat funding for nursing education we are seeing a generation of nursing students with significant debt. And that is going to be a barrier, I believe, to our profession being able to grow. Right now, we have an economic situation where we are not seeing the shortage that we saw ten years ago. But it’s very easy to get back to that point if the economics of going into nursing shifts when you graduate from a BSN program with $100,000 in debt and are limited in your initial salary. Loan repayment programs are not that plentiful as they used to be. The economics of it makes it tough. Because we are talking about middle class folks who are not able to take on that debt. And when it is becoming increasingly attractive to become an APRN, that is all debt to be able to get the master’s to become a nurse practitioner or a nurse midwife. We are going to need some serious advocacy and a plan to deal with the cost of our education.
What are your thoughts about safe staffing?
It is so interesting. Safe staffing has been a legislative priority for decades. We have not been able to pass these bills. I think the approach needs to be more balanced with safe staffing committees in these hospitals. Moving away from these ratios and having hospitals have safe staffing committees that would take into consideration the circumstances that facilities and the region when staffing levels. On these committees, nurses would serve so a legislative body is not dictating it. I think that this is an appropriate approach coupled with compelling Medicare participating facilities to set staffing levels and monitor outcomes.
When elected, what would you do to go about helping to ensure equitable access to health care?
That’s like the question! For me, equitable access to health care allows everyone to get health care. Health care is a human right. Human rights have been fundamental to my nursing practice. It is written in our Code of Ethics—this idea that everyone should have health care—and I think our policies should reflect that. For me, that includes fixing the Affordable Care Act to ensure affordable coverage; and making sure we have clinics, hospitals, and facilities in communities so that the burden is not on low-income people or people with transportation challenges or resource limitations so that people are able to get the care and services they need. We have so much innovation, technology, and so many improvements now in a way we are able to provide care whether it’s telemedicine or individualized health care. It is a shame if all of that innovation and all of those improvements are seen in resource communities. We need to be focused in these conversations about reform and transforming our system to ensure that it is serving everyone—rural, urban, low income, and elderly.
What advice would you give to aspiring policy advocates who may be considering a run for public office?
Your country needs you! There are too few nurses in policy positions. Seek a County Board position. The County Board supervises the local Department of Health. Run for state legislator, they address scope of practice issues. Run for Congress! There are many opportunities to serve and lead. Step forward!