Candidates Donna White and Rep. Gale Adcock (D-Cary) listen as NC Nurses Association president Mary Graff introduces them at the NCNA annual meeting in Winston-Salem in late September.
Candidates Donna White and Rep. Gale Adcock (D-Cary) listen as NC Nurses Association president Mary Graff introduces them at the NCNA annual meeting in Winston-Salem in late September. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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<p>McCrory, Cooper and others in pitched electoral battles this year showed up at this year’s NC Nursing Association conference in late September.

By Rose Hoban

Usually, the annual North Carolina Nurses Association conference is full of workshops on wound care, patient safety and staff leadership, but this year’s meeting in Winston-Salem took the discussions on leadership a step further – featuring high-level candidates from this year’s political battles.

Candidates (l to r) Donna White, Rep. Gale Adcock and Attorney General Roy Cooper wait with NCNA president Mary Graff to speak to about 400 nurses at the association’s annual meeting in Winston-Salem. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“NCNA is interested in taking advantage of every possible opportunity to engage nurses in the legislative and political process,” said Tina Gordon, head of the association, which also has a political action committee.

The NCNA has been more visible at the General Assembly in recent years as nursing leaders have pushed for expanded practice for nurses and nurse-midwives and other health care issues.

“We hope to hear candidates who have a solid understanding and appreciation for the health care needs in the state,” Gordon said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about nurses, it’s about what’s good for patient care and making sure every North Carolinian has access to quality affordable care.”

In addition to inviting Gov. Pat McCrory and his challenger Roy Cooper, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and his challenger Deborah Ross, and several candidates for the General Assembly, the nursing association presented awards to Sen. Louis Pate (R-Mt. Olive) and Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston-Salem), both members of health care committees.

Both men received standing ovations from the capacity crowd of 400 when they were lauded for  their support of a bill to expand the scope of practice for advanced practice nurses.

Medicaid expansion inflection point

The NCNA meeting took place during the final week of September, a week after the fatal shooting by Charlotte police of Keith Lamont Scott, which lead to nightly protests and curfews in that city.

“This week, I’ve had to deal with serious emergencies,” said McCrory, who sent a two-and-a-half minute video in lieu of attending. “You better than anyone know emergencies.”

Attorney General Roy Cooper takes a selfie with Jamacia Holliday, a senior nursing student from Winston-Salem State University after his speech to the NC Nurses Association. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

McCrory praised his mother, a nurse, and the nurses who cared for her during her final illness.

Then McCrory reminded viewers that the state’s unemployment rate had been more than cut in half during his administration.

“We’ve done this by lowering taxes for everyone, including nurses, who are getting a paycheck,” McCrory said. “You are now getting two percent more in your paycheck.”

He said that looking forward to a second term, he wanted to make mental health and substance abuse treatment a priority.

“I need your advice, I need your input, I need your leadership” in finding new mental health workers, he concluded, to polite applause.

Cooper, who appeared in person, took advantage of the occasion to blast McCrory and the legislature for choosing not to expand Medicaid, as allowed for under the Affordable Care Act.

“Chris Christie from New Jersey, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and even Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, who’s now on the presidential ticket, have all said yes to Medicaid expansion,” Cooper said.

The criticism drew a raucous reception from the crowd.

“I’m going to need your help when I become governor to make sure that North Carolina does it.” Cooper said to applause. “We need those health care dollars here.”

During a fifteen minute speech, punctuated by applause, Cooper talked prioritizing education, hiring more school nurses, curbing prescription drug abuse, and the need for increased mental health treatment. He also criticized House Bill 2, which targets the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and has lead to businesses and events pulling out of the state.

Down ticket

Senatorial candidates Richard Burr and Deborah Ross each made an appearance during lunch on the final day of the nurses’ conference.

Burr, who started his speech by saying he would not talk about politics, proceeded to predict the demise of President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

“This is financially imploding and will probably reach a point of insolvency over the next 17-24 months,” he said. “I can assure you that the next administration will have to deal with this in the Congress.”

Former General Assembly Rep. Deborah Ross speaks to the North Carolina Nurses Association annual meeting in Winston-Salem in late September. Photo courtesy: NCNA

Burr argued for government deregulation to spur innovation by pharmaceutical and medical technology companies.

“We pay a little too much for pharmaceuticals in this country, because we like to be the first to get them, we offer exclusivity to try to spread the cost of research and development out,” he said. “We’re criticized and others around the world benefit from the investment we make but the investment in innovation is an investment that spreads across every sector of our economy.”

Burr told the crowd that the coming year would be marked by debate on taxes, “what the right health care direction is, and also what the right amount of government regulation is.”

“I’m ready for that debate,” he said.

Finally, Burr argued for passage of the Title VIII Nursing Workforce Reauthorization Act that he introduced this summer with Democratic senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR). The bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015 but has seen no action beyond introduction in either chamber.

Deborah Ross gave more of a stump speech, reminding the crowd that the NC Nurses Association had honored her as legislator of the year at the General Assembly in 2006.

Ross criticized her former colleagues for refusing to expand Medicaid, calling the decision to reject it “insanity.” She argued the Affordable Care Act needed Congress to make fixes in order for it to work better.

“We know that the Affordable Care Act has saved lives,” she said, recounting the story of a man who approached her on the campaign trail to tell her about how insurance he obtained under the law paid for his cancer treatment.

She noted she voted to increase North Carolina’s minimum wage, and used that to pivot to a criticism of Burr, who she said voted “to raise his salary more than half a dozen times in the U.S. Congress.”

But Ross and Burr found common ground in their support for the expanded role of nurses.

The meeting also featured a discussion of legislative priorities by Gale Adcock (D-Cary), who is running for re-election, and Republican Donna White, who is running for an open General Assembly seat in Johnston County. Both women are active members of the nursing association (Adcock is a former president) and said they would reach across the aisle to work together on issues of importance to nurses.

“There are people who are already nervous in the House that there are going to be two nurses,” White said to laughter. “It’s the perfect storm.”

“We’re in different parties, and you know what, we don’t care,” Adcock said. “It has to do with the people we take care of, the people you take care of and the people that we are going to work with at the General Assembly.”

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Punching above their weight

NCNA head Tina Gordon said she wants her members to be heard by lawmakers, something that can be a challenge for nurses who are outspent by physicians, hospitals and other medical groups at the General Assembly.

During the first quarter of 2016, the NC Nurses Association PAC donated about $5,300 to 10 legislators on both sides of the aisle in Raleigh and several electoral committees. In the same time period, the North Carolina Medical Society donated $84,500 to more than 40 North Carolina legislators, some of whom received individual $5,000 donations.

“NCNA is interested in taking advantage of every possible opportunity to engage nurses in the legislative and political process,” Gordon said. “[The PAC] is one of the ways that our members can work together to increase the influence and recognition of the profession.”[/box]

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...