July 5th, 2007 | Following the Leaders
When Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) entered nursing school, she knew she wanted to help people by improving their lives. When she entered the profession as a new graduate, she never could have imaged how her career would unfold. Johnson, the first nurse to serve in the U.S. House, represents Texas’ 30th district, is working to improve the lives of all Americans.
Johnson’s career in public service began in 1972 when she was involved in a low-income community immunization program, working as a volunteer. Dallas community leaders approached her, asking if she would consider running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. She says she knew running for office wouldn’t be easy, but that winning a seat in the Texas General Assembly would be an important step in helping the district’s underprivileged. At that time no African-American woman had ever won public office in Dallas. Texas politics was strictly a Good-Old-Boy club where women—especially minority women—were not allowed. Working to overcome many barriers during the election campaign, she prevailed, and began serving her first term in the state legislature in Austin.
Serving with distinction, Johnson became a rising star in the Texas General Assembly. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed her as Regional Director of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare where she served until 1981. In 1986, Johnson again ran for public office and was the first Dallas area woman elected to the Texas State Senate. Six years later Johnson became the first nurse serving on Capitol Hill after winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. During her time in Congress, Johnson has sponsored legislation supporting federal welfare programs, legislation that protects the environment, and federal tax reform that made the tax code fairer for blue-collar workers. Johnson is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and in 2001, Ebony Magazine named her as one of the ten most powerful black women. Known on Capitol Hill as the “Gentlewoman from Texas,” Johnson is currently serving her eighth term.
When asked what it was like to be the first nurse to serve in the Texas General Assembly, as well as on Capitol Hill, she chuckled, responding that it was an eye opener. She said not a lot of people have insight into healthcare or into the intricacies of nursing. She said, “My nursing experience has been an invaluable asset in my political career.” Johnson also acknowledges her use of communication skills she learned as a psychiatric nurse. “I think that just knowing a bit about personality structure and working with people helps me more than anything else. In this environment(Capitol Hill) you have to have tolerance and respect differences. I often will spend time talking with people that have an opposite philosophy. That puzzles many of my colleagues. I like to get a better understanding of those with opposing ideas, and during the process they also learn where I’m coming from.”
Johnson said that as a nurse she learned not to shy away from challenges, and that her nursing values serve as her compass. She is a supporter of the establishment of the Office of the National Nurse, and was a cosponsor of the Nurse Reinvestment Act. Her comprehensive understanding of healthcare issues and the needs of senior citizens has also catapulted her into a political slug-feast with the Bush Administration over the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill. Johnson contends that the bill is a farce to America’s senior citizen. She explains that under the bill, there is nothing that prohibits insurance companies offering prescription plans from changing their policies at anytime, leaving senior citizens to fend for themselves. She also said the bill prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services from being able to negotiate prices seniors pay for their medications. There is currently no cap on what seniors can be charged for their medications. Johnson said, “It’s a very confusing, very complicated bill. And very honestly, it is not intended to help seniors, it is intended to help pharmaceutical companies and HMO’s.” She adds, “Seniors can get into a plan that has the appearance of having a discount on medications they use all the time. The problem is that the price for those so-called discounted medications can go up the very next month after signing up for a plan.” Johnson believes that the Bush Administration’s ultimate goal is to do away with Medicare and put all seniors into a Health Maintenance Organization. Johnson has also been an outspoken advocate of allowing the reimportation of medications from Canada, and allowing seniors to buy medications from Canadian vendors.
During her successful career, Johnson’s goal has remained unchanged. She remains committed to her belief that in nursing, as in politics, the goal is the same: to help people and make their lives better.