National Nurses United was planning to wait until the general election to make an official endorsement of a presidential candidate. But then Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders threw his hat in the ring.
Leadership of the California-based organization with about 185,000 members had worked with Sanders previously to address the nursing shortage and on broader issues such as universal healthcare. After a poll of the members found overwhelming support for Sanders over his primary rival, Hillary Clinton, NNU endorsed Sanders in August.
Sanders, who has surprised many by practically tying Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and winning the New Hampshire primaries in a landslide, said then that nurses are a vital part of the healthcare industry and their job is important, demanding and fulfilling.
“We need to make it a national priority to work together to train more nurses, and that's exactly what I intend to do as your president,” he said. “We all know that nurses prevent medical errors, reduce healthcare costs and help patients recover more quickly. We need to be looking at health outcomes and nurses are the key to making patients healthier.”
Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, said a single-player health plan, as well as actions to reduce prescription drug prices, are key issues for nurses. They are also passionate about broader areas such as income inequality, college affordability and environmental sustainability.
“I think nurses are a microcosm of society in general and they get just as frustrated as everybody else does at politicians who say one thing to get elected and then do another when they get into office,” she said.
Sanders has introduced a Medicare-for-all plan that Clinton has said could not pass Congress and doesn't improve on the hard-fought gains of the Affordable Care Act.
Burger said nurses see universal healthcare as a worthy pursuit because of all the people they see who are not getting access to the care they need.
“The reason nurses want Sen. Bernie Sanders to be president is they are tired of seeing patients in the hospital who could have avoided the hospital if they could get their medications and treatments at home,” she said.
Burger has patients nearly every day who say they cannot schedule a diagnostic colonoscopy to check for cancer because they haven't met their health plan's deductible and don't have the money to pay out-of-pocket costs.
Burger and other NNU officials were careful to gather the opinions of their members on the presidential race. She considered that the largely female profession might support Clinton because of her gender, but heard from members that other factors mattered more, she said.
“As we like to say, it's more important to break the class ceiling than the glass ceiling,” she said.
Exit polling from the New Hampshire primaries support this idea. Sanders won 55% of female voters overall in the state and won 69% of Democratic women younger than 45.
The endorsement for another large nurses union remains up for grabs. Faith Jones, chairwoman of the American Nurses Association PAC, said the organization will likely wait to consider endorsing a candidate until the general election campaign begins. They use lengthy questionnaires and interviews during the process. In the most recent two elections, the ANA PAC endorsed Barack Obama.
The ANA PAC previously endorsed Clinton's bid for Senate in 2000 and endorsed Sanders for Congress in 1998. It has not endorsed any of the current Republican candidates.
Jones said safe staffing levels are also a big concern for nurses she has talked to. Other areas include allowing advanced practice registered nurses to practice to their full authority and promoting safe patient handling.
She said nurses are generally politically active and frequently participate in campaigns.
“We're the largest group in healthcare, so we want to make sure our voice is heard,” she said.