Rep. Lauren Underwood made history as the youngest black woman to serve in Congress when she was elected to represent Illinois’ 14th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s also one of only a handful of politicians with a background in healthcare. Underwood has spent her time in Washington fighting to make sure everyone in this country has access to affordable, quality healthcare, regardless of their background or economic status.
Underwood was born in Mayfield Heights, OH in 1986. Her family moved to Naperville, IL when she was three. She was diagnosed with a rare heart condition at a young age, which led to dozens of hospital visits. As a young woman, she started working on the city’s Fair Housing Advisory Commission to make sure low-income individuals could find a place to live without turning to the streets. She went on to earn a BSN from the University of Michigan, where she remembers taking a class on nursing and politics, which forever changed her understanding of the healthcare industry. She realized providers could also serve as leaders of the community. It taught her that nursing and politics are both about establishing an emotional connection with other people.
While pursuing her degree, she spent time at the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta, GA. That’s where she got the chance to meet newly elected President Barack Obama. Impressed with her skills, he eventually asked her to serve as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so she could help implement the Affordable Care Act, which brought health insurance to tens of millions of Americans. For Underwood, implementing the ACA was personal. She has had a pre-existing medical condition from a young age, so she knows how difficult it can be for some people to get health insurance.
She began her political career in 2017, when she first announced her candidacy for Illinois’ 14th Congressional district, which includes the northern and western suburbs of Chicago. During her first debate with the incumbent, Underwood said she decided to get into politics because her local representative had voted to repeal the ACA, which would have stripped people like her of their health insurance. She went on to defeat the incumbent by just four points.
Since taking office in 2019, Underwood has kept her focus on healthcare. She is the chair of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, which has made black maternal health issues a topic of national conversation. We know that black women are two to three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related issue than white women. She supports the idea of creating a nationalized health insurance system, something like Medicare for All, but is focused on figuring out how to pay for it before advancing it through Congress.
She is also a fierce defender of immigrants coming to the U.S. in search of a better life and has accused Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security of intentionally causing the deaths of five migrant children during former President Trump’s controversial family separation policy. Underwood is also fighting to end the country’s gun violence epidemic. As a Chicago native, she is all too familiar with the death and destruction the issue has caused in recent years. She currently serves on the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force to keep unlicensed firearms off the streets.
The NBNA is proud to honor Rep. Underwood with this year’s Trailblazer Award during the 49th Annual NBNA Conference, which runs from August 4th to 8th. The conference will be held virtually to make sure everyone can safely attend as the Delta variant continues to spread across much of the U.S.
Unlike many of her colleagues in Washington, Underwood knows what it’s like to be a nurse firsthand. She even mentored and taught future nurse practitioners through Georgetown University’s online master’s program. She won’t rest until nurses and healthcare providers have the support they need to do their jobs effectively, while making sure every American can get the care they need without going into debt. For Underwood, healthcare is a human right; we couldn’t be happier about her receiving this prestigious honor.