The quest for a ‘national nurse’ continues

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In 2005, Teri Mills wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that called for creating a "national nurse" position. Mills and her colleague Alisa Schneider haven't achieved their goal yet, but they are making strides toward it one day at a time. 

"This is a grass-roots effort, and the idea doesn't come from an organization but from individuals, says Mills, a nurse educator at Portland Community College in Oregon and a member of AFT Local 2277.

For seven years nonstop, Mills and Schneider (who is currently acting director of the college's nursing program) have been pursuing the idea of having Congress appoint a national nurse for public health to complement the work of the U.S. surgeon general. One of the first things they did was start the National Nursing Network Organization, making the pursuit of a national nurse position its first priority. Its second priority is to build a volunteer network of nurses and other health professionals who will promote nationwide efforts that focus on wellness and disease prevention. 

For the past several years, Mills, Schneider and members of their organization have been successful in finding a member of Congress to introduce a bill to create the position.

This year, the National Nurse Act of 2011 (H.R. 3679) was introduced by U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)and co-sponsored by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). Johnson, who is a registered nurse, says that "having a national nurse focused on prevention activities will help reduce illnesses and decrease the costs for care and services."

The idea of having a national nurse seems to resonate with people, but getting legislation passed is another story altogether. Competition for getting legislation passed is stiff, especially in a divisive Congress. Over the years, the National Nursing Network Organization has garnered support from other groups and interested stakeholders who see the need for more nursing leadership.

"We are starting to make a difference because we are starting to get more assertive and trying to advocate for the legislation more aggressively," says Mills, while at the same time "educating the public and combating misinformation."

This spring, several members of the group traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with 33 legislators in hopes of gaining their support. This year's bill now has 24 co-sponsors. "It's more complicated to get lawmakers to sign on than people think," says Mills, but she's excited about the prospects of getting the bill passed this year.

"We just feel like we can do better, and that's what inspires us. The most important work needed to get the legislation passed is being done at the grass-roots level. Things happen best when messages are communicated one-on-one."

"Every organization really believes its legislation is the most important to pass," says Mills. The National Nurse Network Organization is certainly no different. If the legislation doesn't make it into law this year, there is little doubt that Mills, Schneider and many other network members will be back in Washington.  

"AFT members don't quit," says Mills. "We know that a lot of nurses share the vision of having a healthy America, and we are not giving up on that vision."

For more information, visit http://nationalnurse.org. [Adrienne Coles]

April 17, 2012