Q&A: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, RN
Johnson, once chief psychiatric nurse at a VA hospital in Dallas, is now in her 12th term representing the 30th District of Texas. She told MedPage Today why she supports the Affordable Care Act and opposes privatizing healthcare for veterans, and explained why the U.S. needs a "National Nurse for Public Health."
A press representative was present during the interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Johnson: I don't agree with much of what [he] has said, however, the majority of people in this country, by the method of which we choose the president, has elected him.
I have known Hillary Clinton since 1972, and I was set on doing whatever I could to help her become president. It didn't happen, but I can't fold my tent and go home, because I ran for office to represent District 30, and I will be here to do that.
MPT: What questions do you have for Pres. Trump?
Johnson: I need to know for sure if he's serious about making sure insurance is available to all human beings. If he's serious about that, then there are some components that we must put in place to make that possible.
I'm willing to try to see whether or not my ideas can work with some of his ideas.
MPT: If there is a repeal-and-replace of the Affordable Care Act, what key provisions would you hope to see in a replacement?
Johnson: I want to see it the same as it is now: no lifetime caps, no additional cost to women, children covered on their families' plans until they're 26, and no ending insurance when a person gets a certain diagnosis.
I think that the attitude of the Affordable Care Act put the responsibility where it's supposed to be. If you paid for the insurance, you were to get the coverage, and that' s what I'm for.
MPT: Were there other changes you would have liked to see in the ACA?
Johnson: In my state, the people who have been the sickest have been the immigrant population. If people have permission to be in this country, have been here 4 or 5 years, and have children that need coverage, I think they ought to be able to buy health insurance.
We cannot as a rich nation think that we are going to be great, when we don't think about making sure that the people we expect to work and do the job have access to healthcare, so they can stay healthy.
MPT: Pres. Trump spoke about allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices when he was campaigning -- do you think that's a good idea?
Johnson: We charge more for medication in this country than anywhere in the world. People in my state go across the border to buy the same medications for about 80% less. And the government invests probably more in medication than any other segment. I think it's only appropriate to be able to negotiate that.
MPT: Do you still see tensions between nurses and physicians around scope of practice issues?
Johnson: I don't think that physicians ought to be threatened by nurses that get more preparation. I feel that we have enough people in this country with enough needs that these two professions can work together. And there are many, many nurses that I would trust more than some doctors out there.
MPT: The Department of Veterans Affairs recently issued a rule allowing most advanced practice nurses to work independently. Do you support the idea?
Johnson: I would like for nurses to be able to work to the extent of their preparation. So, I certainly support it. And the country certainly needs it, especially in our rural areas, where we have a very big shortage of physicians.
MPT: You worked at a VA hospital before becoming a legislator. Do you think privatizing healthcare for veterans makes sense?
Johnson: The profile of the veteran has changed tremendously. Veterans now are very poor and most are looking for an avenue to get an education. Then, they find themselves in war scenes over and over again, because there's no draft.
You're dealing with a younger, less-prepared-for-trauma veteran. Some 90% now have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You're talking about people who need a consortium of support; they need psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, job counselors, and healthcare. You're not going to get that if you go to a private hospital.
MPT: How has being a nurse shaped who you are and your role in Congress?
Johnson: I think nursing is probably one of the best professions that gives you a good foundation for coming into public office, because you're not afraid to make quick, definitive, informed decisions and when you make them and believe in them, you'll fight for them. And that's what I try to do.
MPT: You re-introduced the National Nurses Act in 2015. What is the primary goal of the bill?
Johnson: What we want to do is make sure that nurses have the proper labeling, so that they can influence at that level. The more we can upgrade nurses in decision-making capacities, the more they'll be respected for what they really are and the more utilization we can make of their talents.
MPT: Elements of another bill you co-sponsored, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, were included in the 21st Century Cures Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support. Why is mental health reform so important?
Johnson: I was a psychiatric nurse. I know that there is hardly any family in the United States that does not have someone in need of mental health care.
In mental illness it takes a long time to get someone back in a normal sphere of operation. Most of the time, unless they're rich, their money can run out if there's not healthcare coverage for mental health. Often a person in crisis has no more than 48 hours in a facility, but they need longer term care. And that still is not achieved in this mental health portion of that [Cures] bill, but it does open the door for more access to care.
MPT: How do you feel about Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) being chosen to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) ?
Johnson: He's friendly to work with, but some of the rhetoric I've heard him say on the floor I don't agree with at all.
I hope he'll be reasonable and approachable, and realize that there are opinions perhaps outside of his personal ones. And I hope he doesn't get rid of all the body of knowledge that is in the department.
MPT: What are you hopeful about in this next administration?
Johnson: I'm from a state that has never shown the compassion that I have wanted them to show towards people who are not rich. I've been working on that for 45 years. I will continue no matter who is in the White House. I have been in the majority 6 years out of 24 but I have something to show for every year that I have been here. I intend to have something to show for this coming time and this coming Congress.