Since she was elected to Congress more than 40 years ago, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has championed nursing and advocated for better access to healthcare for her constituents.
“Whatever discussion I am a part of, I never miss the opportunity to talk about the value of professional nurses, the value of investment in the profession and the value of attempting to look at the full potential of nurses abilities,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has sponsored National Nurses Week legislation and supported federal funding for nursing education, which she called essential to addressing the nursing shortage, recently reintroduced the National Nurse Act of 2013 (HB 485). The act would establish the position of a National Nurse for Public Health and lift the profile of the profession to the level of Surgeon General, she said. Similar bills have not passed in other years, but she remains hopeful.
“Nurses have to push for the respect they deserve,” Johnson said. “In this environment, its difficult to do most anything, but if you give up and dont try, you lose ground. You have to keep pushing forward.”
A graduate of St. Marys College in Notre Dame, Ind., Johnson received a BSN in 1967 from Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas, and a masters degree in public administration in 1976 from Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.
Johnson specialized in psychiatric nursing, which she said has helped her with interpersonal relationships. Nursing also gave her the experience of working with different people, building organizational and communication skills and being cognizant of making decisions that you can stand behind, she said.
Johnson served as chief psychiatric nurse at the Dallas VA Hospital until she was elected to Congress in 1972, when she became the first nurse elected to that office. She attributes her early success in politics, in part, to the trust people generally have in nurses.
“One of the things I could offer people to relate to was a positive image,” she said. “Im upfront and straightforward with people, not to say something they are going to like but to be truthful.”
Johnson said she bases her decisions on the best information available at the time, but acknowledges that “politics is not a perfect science.”
During her tenure, she has advocated for women, children and families, and President Jimmy Carter appointed her to serve as regional director of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1977. She later became a business consultant and again was elected to Congress in 1992, after serving in the Texas Senate since 1986.
Johnson served on a healthcare task force and, along with fellow nurses, helped colleagues understand the Affordable Care Act, the effect insurance companies have on healthcare costs, and the expense and lack of follow-up associated with treating primary care patients in EDs.
“There are aspects [of the ACA] I would like to see improved, but it was the best we could do at the time and a step in the right direction,” said Johnson, who supported the bill and expects it will offer opportunities for nurses. “If we fully utilize the skills of nurses, wed have much better care outcomes.”
Johnson indicated she agrees with the Institute of Medicines “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health” recommendation that nurses practice to the full extent of their knowledge and experience. She views the opportunities open to all registered nurses, not just advanced practice nurses, since the need for home healthcare, telehealthcare and care coordination will grow in the days ahead.
“This is nurses day, the day nurses can shine the greatest,” Johnson said. “We have more people in need of healthcare and fewer physicians.”