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Making A Healthier Texas

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From delivering babies to improving health care, Jamie Dudensing is committed to making lives better.

By Andrew Barlow

It’s a phrase she’s uttered often: “Trust me, governor, this won’t hurt a bit.”

In her former role as the Texas Capitol nurse, Jamie Dudensing doled out flu shots and basic care for everyone from governors to freshmen legislators and Capitol staffers. She also treated a frequent but little-known problem for visitors to the Capitol grounds: squirrel bites. Much later, as a health-care policy expert, she would treat another set of headaches with a different kind of medicine: negotiation and compromise.

Dudensing was born in Sweetwater, Texas, and grew up surrounded by practicing nurses—her mother, grandmother and aunt—so, her original career path was no surprise. After working her way through college and earning her nursing degree from Texas Tech, Dudensing began practicing as a labor-and- delivery nurse at Covenant Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Lubbock, Texas.

“I loved my time as a labor-and-delivery nurse. It’s challenging but rewarding work,” Dudensing says. “I do think back to my days as a practicing nurse and remember that I was always the person asking, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ ”

That curiosity didn’t just apply to her daily nursing tasks; Dudensing also had an increasing interest in state and national health-care policy. Even as she learned the hands-on side of the profession, she stayed in tune with political developments in Austin and Washington, D.C. That broad interest fueled a chance conversation with then Speaker of the Texas House Pete Laney, which led her to Austin. Their paths crossed 16 years ago at a Covenant Hospital event. Clearly impressed by her grasp of health-care policy, Laney told Dudensing about a job opening for a Texas Capitol nurse. Within weeks, Dudensing applied, interviewed and got the job caring for the members and staff of the Texas Legislature.

The halls of the Texas Capitol were the perfect place for Dudensing to apply her practical skills as a nurse while learning the ins and outs of the legislative process.

“Here I was, in the Capitol, surrounded by all the policymakers and political leaders, and I realized my real passion was for public policy and making things better in health care from the inside out,” she recalls.

With her true calling taking shape, Dudensing decided to take a big risk.

“I’ll admit I was a little intimidated at the prospect of making such a big career change so soon after earning my nursing degree, but I’m so glad I made the transition,” she says. “I tell female friends all the time, ‘If you’re not sure you’re doing what you’re really passionate about, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and explore what else is out there. The best career for you might be something you haven’t even considered yet.’ ”

Dudensing left her position as the Capitol nurse to pursue a master’s degree in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. She faced her fair share of skeptics when she returned to the Capitol wearing a suit instead of a nurse’s uniform.

“Having known me as the Capitol nurse, some couldn’t grasp the concept of crossing over from medicine into the legislative world,” she says. “I walked the Capitol halls for days, going door to door with my resume until I found someone who believed my background was not a hindrance but actually an asset.”

Dudensing’s first legislative position was budget analyst for the House Appropriations Committee.

“Working those incredibly long hours on the budget was a great way to learn the real mechanism of how health policy is actually made,” she says.

Her work caught the eye of then Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who recruited her in 2005 to serve as a policy and budget advisor. Later, she would be promoted to serve as the lieutenant governor’s policy director and deputy chief of staff.

During her time at the Capitol, she honed her signature style, identifying high-reaching goals, engaging in rigorous preparation and research, and bringing a competitive spirit to the public-policy arena.

“I learned pretty quickly that the keys to success in this world are a mix of compromise, innovation and perseverance,” Dudensing says. “When you feel strongly about something, you have to be willing to take risks. I have never shied away from a debate and still don’t.”

Some of her proudest achievements include advocating for expanding access to services related to the detection and treatment of breast and cervical cancers, expanding access to substance-abuse services for pregnant women with Medicaid coverage and expanding access to mental-health services.

In 2014, the Texas Association of Health Plans named Dudensing its CEO, empowering her to represent the state’s major commercial health insurers and Medicaid health plans. Dudensing quickly got to work transforming what had been a relatively small-scale association into a comprehensive government-relations and consumer-advocacy organization.

The transition from Capitol staffer to advocate had its share of challenges.

“I was so used to working behind the scenes that I had to learn an entirely new approach that included tackling one of my biggest fears, public speaking. Fortunately, we have a great team at TAHP that helps me prepare for the hearings, meetings and events in which we make our case for a health-care system that is more affordable, transparent and understandable,” she says.

As CEO, Dudensing is now a regular witness at Texas Senate and House committee hearings, a resource for local and national media reporting on health care, and a frequent guest speaker at public events and conferences.

After almost two years on the job, Dudensing has guided TAHP to a place of greater influence and respect in the conversations about health-care issues in Texas. Chief among those issues are the push for greater transparency in the health-care system, reforms to bring down skyrocketing prescription-drug costs, empowering consumers to challenge surprise medical bills and enacting measures to save taxpayer dollars while strengthening and modernizing the Texas Medicaid program for Texans in need.

Just as she did as a nursing student, Dudensing is driven by the simple questions: Why are we doing it this way? Can we do it better? And just as she did when she went to work as a nurse, she follows her passion to secure greater access to quality health care for all Texans.

When she’s not busy raising her 7-year-old son, Hank, with her husband, Mac, Dudensing loves to garden (Tomatoes are her specialty.), travel and explore Austin in search of new restaurants.

“I am so lucky to have worked with so many strong, capable women, building professional relationships that have turned into wonderful, lasting friendships. The political world is a tough one and it takes strong relationships to succeed,” Dudensing says. “It can also still very much be a boys’ club, and I am in debt to a number of strong female leaders and mentors who helped me along the way. Their example inspires me to share the lessons they taught me with young women who are just getting started at the Capitol. It’s so important for women to help each other succeed, build each other up and encourage each other to find careers or passions in life that are truly fulfilling.”

All those careers may not offer the chance to give the state’s chief executive a flu shot, but they can make the world a better place.

 

Photo by Kerri Lohmeier.

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