Gaining Experience on Capitol Hill

Ellen Kurtzman shaking hands with Nancy Pelosi
11/13/2019 12:49

Ellen Kurtzman, Ph.D., M.P.H., RN, FAAN, has spent 2019 on Capitol Hill working closely with the primary architect of the Affordable Care Act on health policy issues. The opportunity was afforded to her last year when the National Academy of Medicine named Dr. Kurtzman one of eight Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship recipients. The fellowship program seeks out exceptional mid-career health professionals and behavioral and social scientists and places them in congressional and executive branch offices to work with politicians and policymakers in shaping health care policy.

Dr. Kurtzman joined Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D.-Calif.) office, where she works with Senior Health and Budget Policy Advisor Wendell Primus, Ph.D. Dr. Primus has worked directly for Ms. Pelosi for nearly 15 of his more than 30 years on the Hill, influencing almost every major piece of health care legislation passed over the past few decades and serving as the primary architect of the Affordable Care Act. 

Dr. Kurtzman attends briefings on behalf of the speaker’s office. She also spends time meeting with patients and patients’ family members, health care payers, providers and practitioners who want Congress to solve specific health care issues. The rest of her time is spent writing memos on health care issues to Ms. Pelosi. 

Fellows interview with representatives from several offices on Capitol Hill before placement, but Dr. Kurtzman had a clear set of requirements for her position. “I had a preference to work in the office of a woman lawmaker. There are a growing number of women in Congress, and no one should miss an opportunity to see female leadership in action. I also wanted to work with a very experienced staff person,” she said. “I was only going to have a nine-month experience on the Hill, and I wanted to see it through the eyes of an expert, somebody with history and experience and good relationships.” 

Her time in the speaker’s office more than met those requirements, and the experience on the Hill has been life-changing, she said. “It’s been a fabulous year of growth and discovery and discomfort,” she said. “When I look back on it, I’m sure it’ll look like a lifetime packed into nine months. The country has so much promise. The staff that works [on the Hill] is so smart and so dedicated and hardworking and thoughtful, and they choose to be public servants because they care deeply. And they want to get it right. They are doing work every day to make the country better in ways we all want. Knowing that our policy is in their hands is very reassuring. I don’t think I ever would have said that before having this experience."