“I've always carried the thread of nursing through my career,” says Erin Murphy, a five-term Minnesota state representative and adjunct professor of nursing at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Murphy, a Democrat, transitioned to the policy arena after five years as a nurse, and has spent the last decade working on legislation related to health care and childcare issues, among many others. But her aspirations haven't stopped there: this past November, she became the first candidate to enter the 2018 Minnesota governor's race.
FROM NURSING TO POLITICS
Raised in Janesville, Wisconsin, in a working class family, Murphy says that despite an early love of politics, she chose to pursue a career in nursing (“because I care about people—which a lot of nurses say, because it's true”), earning a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of Wisconsin in 1984 and taking a job as a medical–surgical nurse at a rural community hospital. She later transferred to surgery and became an operating room nurse. In 1988, Murphy moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota to work on the transplant team at the University of Minnesota Hospital.
Though she enjoyed her new job, Murphy felt a calling toward policy. “I knew even then that I wanted to find the intersection between politics, policy, and nursing,” she says. So in 1989 she went to work for the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA), where she stayed for 14 years, seven of which as the organization's executive director. “For most of my career, my practice of nursing has been about the health of the people—policy has been the intervention and politics has been the means,” she says.
The first item Murphy tackled at the MNA was passage of MinnesotaCare, a health insurance program for low- and moderate-income workers who are unable to purchase private insurance. She helped organize nurses to testify in support of the law. The years-long process to get the state legislation passed gave Murphy a view of the behind-the-scenes effort involved: having to build an argument to justify the legislation, for example, and then working to demonstrate its impact on both the state's budget and the budgets of families.
Eventually, after years at the MNA, Murphy began to consider running for public office. The idea fell by the wayside when her mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in 2004—but the experience of caring for a very sick parent at the end of her life was the deciding factor in Murphy's decision to run. “I had been working for so many years to make sure people had access to care and good coverage,” she says, but despite her mother's quality health insurance, “she still had to fight the system, the insurance companies, to get the care that she needed,” Murphy recalls. “That changed me, and it is the reason I decided to run for office.” In 2006, Murphy won her first election to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Upon taking office, Murphy's first order of business was to get a seat on the Health and Human Services Finance Committee. She did—and in her first two years in the legislature she helped craft reforms to Minnesota's health care system that aimed to expand access to affordable coverage and care. Murphy authored legislation known as Health Care Homes, which was successfully enacted in 2008 as part of a statewide health care reform initiative. The legislation promotes a broader medical home model in which primary care is linked to wellness, prevention, self-management, and community services, facilitating better outcomes and quality of life, particularly for those with chronic and complex health conditions.
So far, Health Care Homes has been a success. “We have seen tremendous outcomes as a result of that simple intervention. We saved over a billion dollars in health care costs. We've seen improved outcomes for people who are chronically ill, and improved outcomes for people of color who are getting better care,” Murphy says. “So we're seeing an impact in terms of equity. I believe in a politics that improves people's lives.”
Murphy, who served as the house majority leader from 2013 to 2014, has worked on many other issues during her tenure: among them, women's health, affordable childcare, expanding access to health care for school employees, and infrastructure projects. She's currently backing a bill that would establish a public health insurance option for all residents of her state.
Though Minnesotans won't vote for governor until next year, Murphy is already traveling the state, holding community meetings and organizing house parties to hear what's on people's minds. In spending the past decade as a legislator, she says, she learned about “the strengths that come from all of our differences”—cultural and regional—and intends to continue tapping into those strengths by meeting and talking with as many people as she can.
But Murphy acknowledges that the country's current partisan political climate is making it more challenging to bridge differing opinions. Having to wrestle with a partisan ideology she sees as marked by a “stronger, harder callus of disinterest and cynicism” is a major barrier to raising issues that concern everyone.
How does Murphy plan to break through that barrier? The answer, she says, is in talking to people face-to-face across the state. “I have always relied on, and have faith in, the ability to communicate directly with people,” she says. “It's gotten harder because people are more cynical about politics. But the only way to break [through] is to be a consistent proponent of solutions that will work for Minnesota and to talk as much as I can to Minnesotans about that. Let them ask questions in order to rebuild some of the bridges that have been broken.”
Murphy also wants fellow nurses to know that they're needed in government. She notes that fundamental nursing skills like listening and problem-solving translate well into politics. “What's special about what [nurses] do is that we have to act when we're taking care of patients. We don't get to say, ‘This is hard for me, I'm not going to do it.’ We are in a position to make the best decisions we can given the circumstances we face. And I think that is a skill and a value that we have walked away from in our political debate.”
Murphy says she's been recruiting nurses to run for public office in the last several years. To nurses who are thinking about it—like she once was—she advises, “We need you. We need more people who are willing to do the hard work of making decisions on behalf of the people we represent in order to move forward… we need more nurses in this process.”—Diane Szulecki, associate editor