Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first four months in Congress were especially grueling. She was elected as one of the freshman Democratic class presidents, became a whip for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and was placed on three committees. But more critically, her mother was ill and in and out of the hospital in New Mexico.
For a period of time, Lujan Grisham thought she might lose her.
As her mother’s primary caregiver, Lujan Grisham had to balance hospital stays and medications and coordination among family and friends, while tackling budget votes, new legislation and caucus work.
Thankfully, her mother’s health improved; she lives now with Lujan Grisham and her daughter in Albuquerque.
The lawmaker has long been committed to addressing issues of long-term care, and the recent experience with her mother seems to have deepened that view. She helped appoint members to the federal Commission on Long-Term Care that was created in January and plans to introduce legislation later this year to chip away at long-term-care deficiencies. Her previous political experience includes a year on the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners and running state-level departments.
Long-term care, both policies and the work itself, consumed much of Lujan Grisham’s life before Congress — including an undercover sting, time as a caregiver for friends and family, consulting work and running her state’s health and aging departments.
Lujan Grisham says she’s fortunate. “Not only am I knowledgeable and have a good friend base who can pitch in when I need them, and daughters, but I can afford to pay the people,” she said. “What about those families who have none of those things?”
By 2020, about 12 million Americans will need some form of long-term care. Few plan for the financial burdens and fewer opt for oft-complicated health care plans as a safety net. There’s no national strategy for long-term care and even if there were, it’s a complex web.
The issue touches the elderly, the disabled and those with physical or mental ailments.
“I think we ought to provide much more dignity and respect to individuals who need some care and assistance, whether they are chronically ill or disabled or seniors, it’s the right thing for this country to do,” she told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview. “If we don’t do it, we’re going to spend a whole lot more money and health care outcomes will be worse.”
Lujan Grisham wants more access to in-home services, a stronger career link and, as a member of the Budget Committee, to help drive the debate on funding.
Lujan Grisham’s sister died at the age of 21, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor at 2 years old. That battle first exposed her to the financial drain long-term illnesses can bring.
She started her career on the law track. She received her J.D. from the University of New Mexico and, in 1988, got a job at the New Mexico State Bar. Later that year, she became director of a lawyer referral program for the elderly.
By 1991, she was leading the New Mexico state agency on aging, staying on as it was elevated to a department.
It was in 1997, during her time as the agency’s director, that Lujan Grisham made headlines. Her agency had received grievances about certain shelter care centers but found them hard to prove.
“My ombudsman said, ‘We need undercover,’” Lujan Grisham said. “I said I would go undercover. And boom. Done.”
Lujan Grisham faked a stroke and speech loss and checked herself into a center for a weekend. She told newspapers at the time that it was the “longest weekend of my life.” Left alone for hours on end, her teeth were not brushed during her stay.
The experience, and a later appointment to run the state’s health department, would further immerse her in the long-term- care complexities. (The day after her appointment, her husband died of a brain aneurysm. She said that tragedy opened her eyes to the importance of budgeting for the loss of a spouse. She is, in happy news, engaged to Manuel E. Cordova, though no wedding date has been set.)
The Job Ahead
Lujan Grisham entered Congress well after the 2010 health care law was signed but on the heels of the January repeal of the CLASS Act, a voluntary long-term-care insurance program that was determined to be financially unsustainable.
But the issue is still percolating. By the end of September, the federal Commission on Long-Term Care is expected to send its recommendations to Congress. Lujan Grisham’s legislation, which she wants to introduce later this year, will model a long-term-care job program off the Peace Corps.
The issue has long had its champions in Congress. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has said improving long-term care is something he’s been fighting for since he joined the Senate in 1985. He authored the language to create the long-term panel.
“The fact is that each of us will need these services and supports at some point in our lifetimes,” Rockefeller said in a statement in June. “The question is whether most Americans can afford to pay for them.”
Regardless of what the commission recommends, Lujan Grisham won’t be quiet in pursuing changes she wants. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is also a first-term member of the House and played alongside Lujan Grisham on the congressional women’s softball team. “She brings a passion and tenacity to the policymaking process that makes her an extremely effective advocate for her constituents,” Sinema said.
Lujan Grisham is, after all, the first Democratic, Hispanic, native New Mexican woman to hold her seat.
“I am really intense and passionate about the things I believe in and about engaging and improving the quality of life for not only my constituents but everyone,” she said. “That’s why I am here.”