40,000 Voices, One Vote
Nov 21, 2019 04:39PM
By Kara Schweiss
Sara Howard made state history in 2012 when she was elected to represent District 9 in the Nebraska Legislature. Her mother, Gwen Howard, had just served two terms in the same seat and was ineligible to run again because of the state’s term limits law.
“It was the first time a daughter had replaced her mother,” Sara said.
Sara’s involvement in politics started in 2004 when she helped manage her mother’s campaign. Gwen, a widow, was a social worker and adoption specialist before she ran for office. Sara learned about the day-to-day responsibilities of public service as she accompanied her mother to community events.
“She didn’t have a lot of support from the traditional establishment, but she had a lot of support from me and my sister, Carrie,” Sara said. The women knocked on doors, shook hands, and engaged in conversations with thousands of constituents during the campaign. The strategy worked.
After the election, Sara left for law school in Chicago. She specialized in child and family law, as well as tax law, and after earning her degree began working as a staff attorney for the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition.
In March 2009, one month into her new job, Sara received the news that her sister had died. Following the advice of a grief counselor not to make any big decisions for at least a year, she remained in Chicago.
That devastating event has helped shape her platform as a legislator as well as continue the work Gwen started.
Their work is a direct reflection of daughter and sister Carrie Howard’s struggle with opioid addiction. In the early 2000s, she suffered a car crash and was given prescription painkillers post-surgery. Her addiction to the painkillers took over, and she was 33 in 2009 when she died from an overdose.
“When she met Oxycontin, there was no going back. She was immediately addicted,” Sara said. “I view substance use disorder as an illness. Carrie was very sick. She would get better. She would get worse. She would get better. She would get worse…Within that last five months she was given almost 1,000 pills every month from Nebraska physicians and Nebraska pharmacies.”
Gwen championed legislation that created a prescription painkiller monitoring program in 2011. Sara continued the fight, and due to these efforts, the legislature passed LB 471 in February 2016. LB 471 requires pharmacies to report when prescriptions are filled, and allows pharmacists to check records of past prescriptions to avoid abuse.
That passion, combined with Sara’s experience in child and family law, serves her well as chairperson for the Nebraska Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “The most effective legislators are those who carve out an area of expertise,” she said.
“Right now, in terms of the Legislature, my goal is to make sure that the committee provides appropriate oversight to the Department of Health and Human Services. There is a lot going on there. We have Medicaid expansion. We have an issue where kids are losing their coverage on the disabilities waiver. We have a crisis in our youth rehabilitation and treatment centers. We have a very real and genuine challenge for the committee,” Sara said. “I would say this is probably one of the most challenging cycles for the HHS committee that we’ve seen in a long time.”
And as she places an emphasis on her passion for drug monitoring, her efforts are helping to prevent similar heartbreak for other families. “Nebraska is one of the hardest places for someone with a substance use disorder to try to get medication,” she explained. “Nebraska now has the lowest rate of reported opioid overdose deaths in the country.”
She also tries to remember the fact that everything she votes for or approves is for the people, not her.
“I approach this work as though I have 40,000 bosses, and they don’t always agree all the time but they do have an expectation that I will listen to them and I will hear them even when we’re not on the same page on an issue,” Sara said. “I’m not meant to be a mirror of any one individual in my district; I’m meant to reflect our values as a whole.”
This article was printed in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.