Wisconsin State Senator | Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner | RN
Legislators in the medical profession can bring a unique perspective and outlook to office, Wisconsin state Sen. Leah Vukmir said.
“We come from a research environment and we make decisions based on the research that is before us,” she said. “For me, I tackle public policy from that same perspective.”
Vukmir worked for 25 years as a registered nurse and certified pediatric nurse practitioner. She now teaches part-time, but found it hard to maintain her nurse practitioner schedule when she took a leadership role in the Wisconsin Senate. Still, that nurse’s mentality helps her in the state capitol when she’s working on public policy.
“As a nurse, you advocate for your patients and, as a legislator, I advocate for my constituents,” she said. “It was a very simple transition.”
Vukmir brings that health background into the Wisconsin Senate after serving four terms in the Wisconsin Assembly. While she isn’t active in nursing now, Vukmir uses her experiences every day in the legislature as chairman of the Senate’s Health and Human Services.
“I like being able to use my experience in a different manner now in the arena of health care public policy,” said Vukmir.
While her career has been in health care, that wasn’t the public policy area that introduced her to the legislature and public service. But her background in research sparked the interest.
It came when her daughter Elena, now 26, was in kindergarten. Vukmir was concerned about a reading program her daughter’s school was using.
“Coming from a medical background and a research background, I thought I asked a rather simple question: Can you show me the research to support this reading program?” she said.
She asked because the program didn’t seem to be working.
“For asking that question, I was sent to the principal’s office. The principal sent me to the superintendent’s office,” she said. “The next thing I knew, I was going to school board meetings, writing letters to the editor and getting involved on a local level on the education policy area.”
She got involved in a Wisconsin organization known as PRESS, for Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, and testified on various pieces of legislation. She also worked on the local level to encourage best practices and research teaching methods.
When her state representative, Gov. Scott Walker, was elected Milwaukee County executive in 2002, friends encouraged her to run for his seat, which she won and held for four terms. She was then elected to the state senate in 2010.
Vukmir chairs the Health and Human Services Committee in the Senate, and leans on her experience in the health field. Her “full career” as a registered nurse and pediatric nurse practitioner ended in about 2004, when she took a leadership position in the Wisconsin Assembly.
Her experience involved the primary care side of pediatrics and gave her “the incredible privilege of watching children grow from the newborn nursery, their first physical exam to their 18-year-old physical exam to college,” she said.
She came full circle when some of her patients had babies. While she doesn’t have the hands-on experience of patient care anymore, Vukmir enjoys the hands-on experience of teaching people who are motivated to work in the health care industry.
“It’s nice to be able to use your experience and your knowledge to captivate an audience,” she said.
That experience is one of the things she brings to the table in the legislature.
“We look at things not from an anecdotal basis, but from the perspective of best practices,” she said. “I think it’s a very important part of public policy.”
Vukmir has pushed for legislation that she believes will improve health care in her state. She pushes for greater transparency in health care in terms of the costs, and believes that will give consumers a better idea of how they can control their own health care costs.
She advised Walker against expanding Medicaid and establishing a state health care exchange as part of the Affordable Care Act, which she opposes.
“With every day,” she said, “we’re seeing more and more problems and it’s going to fall to the states to solve those problems because, in the end, we’re responsible for the individuals in our state.”