Good afternoon. Thank you for the kind introduction, Dr. Yag-Howard. And thank you to the AADA for inviting me to speak. I’m honored to be here.
I want to start by expressing my gratitude to all of you. Whether you are a dermatologist, a nurse, a patient advocate, or the manager of a dermatology practice—I know how hard you work, day in and day out, to provide your patients with the best care possible.
I view one of my main roles in Congress, and on the Ways and Means Committee, as seeking to empower you and other health professionals. That means ensuring there are clear and coherent rules in place to guide how you practice medicine; making sure you are fairly reimbursed for the services you provide; reducing excessive bureaucracy so you can devote the vast majority of your time to direct patient care, which is why you entered this profession in the first place; and making structural changes to the supply chain for prescription drugs so your patients can access and afford the therapies that you determine are in their best interest.
As a Member of Congress representing Florida, the Sunshine State, I particularly appreciate your efforts to prevent and treat skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States. And as the mother of two young children, I really value your efforts to make sure that sun safety starts early in life—since we know that the more times a child gets a sunburn or even sun damage, the greater their future risk of skin cancer. I’m proud to be a cosponsor of House Resolution 323, a bipartisan bill encouraging state, local, and community initiatives that promote childhood skin protection. So, again, thank you for the important work you are doing, and please keep doing it.
Now, with your indulgence, I’d like to tell you a bit about my background and how the heck I got here—because it’s been quite a journey. I know you must be surprised—even shocked—to hear that a Member of Congress wants to talk about herself. But I promise that my navel gazing has a larger purpose. I think hearing my story will help you understand my approach to policymaking generally and to health care specifically.
I was born in Vietnam several years after the Vietnam War ended. A communist government had taken power in the country. And it sought to punish those citizens who had worked alongside American or South Vietnamese forces during the war. Both of my parents fell into that category.
When I was a baby, and my brother was eight, my mother and father concluded that things had to change. They wanted us to be safe, to have freedom and dignity, and to have a fair shot at a better future—and they didn’t think any of this was possible in Vietnam.
So we fled Vietnam by boat in the dead of night, alongside several other families, with my father at the helm. My parents knew we might not survive the passage. But they had decided that it was better for our family to die together in search of light than to live in darkness. Years later, now that I’m a mother myself, I can’t imagine the courage this took.
Unfortunately, several days into our attempted escape, our boat ran out of fuel in the middle of the South China Sea. We sent out an S-O-S call and were dangerously adrift. I assume the adults on the boat must have thought the end was near.
Fate, however, had a different plan for us. Thanks to grace or good fortune, a U.S. Navy ship that was patrolling in the area received our distress call and located our boat. The sailors onboard, all of them trained for combat, showed compassion for desperate strangers. They gave us the fuel and supplies we needed to safely reach a Malaysian refugee camp.
This was the moment that made the rest of my life possible. And although I was too young to realize it, this was also my first lesson in America’s uniquely wonderful combination of power and generosity. It’s a lesson I’ve re-learned many times since then.
After spending several months at the Malaysian refugee camp, my family again became the beneficiary of American kindness. The Carter administration, in the face of significant public skepticism, made the politically-courageous decision to increase the number of refugees from Southeast Asia that the United States would accept. This policy change set the stage for the members of a Lutheran Church to sponsor my family’s passage to the U.S. We settled in Virginia and eventually became proud American citizens.
In the course of our physical journey from Vietnam to America, and our emotional journey from darkness to light, my family incurred an enormous debt of gratitude to this country. When I pause to look back at my life up until to this point, it’s clear that many of the choices I made were part of an effort to chisel away at this debt, while knowing that I could never do enough to repay it in full.
It’s the reason why, after 9/11, I left my job in the private sector, went to graduate school, and joined the Department of Defense as a civilian employee. When I saw the country that had rescued my family come under attack, I reacted in a very raw, emotional way. I realized—instinctively more than intellectually—that I had to do something—anything—to help. Ultimately, I spent four years as a national security specialist working under two secretaries of defense, who happened to be Republicans. It was one of the most fulfilling periods of my life. I served alongside men and women who didn’t give a darn about your political views. All that mattered was accomplishing the mission.
About a decade later, in 2016, under a different set of circumstances, I again heard the call to serve the country that had saved my life. By then I had moved with my husband to Orlando. I was back working in the private sector. We had two young children and something resembling a normal life.
But in June of that year, a disturbed, hate-filled man walked into the Pulse nightclub in my community and gunned down 49 innocent people who had gathered to dance and have fun with their friends. The incident knocked the air out of me, and so did the anemic response from the long-serving Member of Congress who represented the area. It was just business as usual for him. He simply could not summon the will to support commonsense steps that would make it harder for dangerous people to use battlefield weapons to destroy American lives and tear apart American communities.
To be honest, it made me angry. But it also made me determined. So I did something that probably qualifies as certifiably insane. Despite having never run for anything in my life, not even student government, I launched a long-shot, four-month campaign to unseat this Member of Congress. I was motivated by this idea that if we want to change Washington, then we need to change the type of people we send to Washington. I also thought about Teddy Roosevelt’s declaration that credit goes, not to the critic, but to the man—or woman—who armors up and gets in the arena.
Well, lo and behold, I won—becoming the first Vietnamese-American woman in history elected to Congress. It’s hard to put into words the joy and gratitude I felt during my swearing-in ceremony. I watched my son wave a small American flag that I had received on the day I became a citizen; I reflected on the sacrifices my hard-working parents had made on my behalf; and I thought about the improbable journey that had taken me to this point and to this place—a journey that would have been impossible in any other country.
So that brings me back to the present day, where I’m now in my second term in Congress—having graduated from a wide-eyed freshman to a wise, worldly sophomore!
As you can imagine, my approach to this job has been shaped by the life experiences I just described.
For instance, I know it sounds like a cliché, but because of my past, I see myself as a patriot, not some partisan warrior. This nation has done so much for me, that’s it hard for me to think about it as being divided into Red America and Blue America. I’m a proud Democrat, but I don’t believe either party has a monopoly on good ideas or bad behavior. I’m worried about the high degree of polarization in this country, and I’m determined not to conduct myself in a way that makes the division any worse. You won’t see me demonize my Republican colleagues, or question their personal motives, or refer to them as the enemy. They’re my fellow Americans, not my adversary. I may disagree with them on some principles and policies, but I will always look to find common ground wherever possible. My party affiliation matters to me—but my country, my constituents, and my conscience matter more. And frankly, I’m someone who is skeptical of political extremism in all of its forms, whether it comes from the far right or the far left of the political spectrum.
Another way my past has influenced my present is that I’ve tried to bring the “mission first” philosophy I learned at the Department of Defense to my work in Congress. The role of a Member of a Congress is multi-faceted. We file bills to change laws, provide oversight of and guidance to the executive branch, help constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy, and use our platform to raise public awareness about issues that may not be getting the attention they deserve.
On the legislative front, my primary mission will always be to get good bills over the finish line—because good bills only make people’s lives better if they become law. That means the bill must get through the House, through the Senate, and be signed by the President. At its core, politics is the art of the possible. And in a federal government where power is divided between the parties, nothing is possible unless it has bipartisan support. Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress who insist on purity will make no progress. And from my perspective, making progress—even if it’s incremental—is the entire point of public service.
I think my commitment to bipartisanship and my focus on getting things done enabled me to be very effective during my first term in the House, even though Democrats were in the minority. I have not changed this result-oriented approach during my second term—now that Democrats are in the majority in the House, but Republicans still control the Senate and the White House.
As you know, I have the honor of serving on the Ways and Means Committee—something only 19 women in history have done before me. Along with tax policy, trade policy, and retirement policy, the Committee has jurisdiction over Medicare and other health care policies. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to serve on the Committee. When I talk to my constituents, many tell me it’s a challenge to afford high-quality health care—whether it’s physician care, hospital care, or prescription drugs. I think Ways and Means gives me a powerful platform to make their lives better. I am using this platform to strengthen the pillars of our existing health care system, not to dismantle or demolish the foundation we have meticulously built over time. I want to fortify Medicaid, Medicare, the individual marketplaces, and employer-sponsored coverage—making each better for patients and providers.
Because our health care system is so complex, I always begin my examination of any health care issue by listening to and learning from stakeholders like yourselves, folks who have earned their expertise through a lifetime of experience. As my colleagues and staff can attest, I am a something of a fanatic about the need for fact-based policymaking. I have seen the damage that can be caused when well-meaning government officials propose or enact policies that are not grounded in a deep understanding of the field they seek to regulate. While I cannot promise that I will always agree with you or any other stakeholder on every policy proposal, I can promise that you will always have a full and fair opportunity to make your case to my office, and that your position will inform my decision.
In addition to serving on Ways and Means, I also lead the Blue Dog Coalition, which is a group of 27 Democrats who represent red or purple districts and who pride ourselves on being pragmatic, bipartisan, and fiscally responsible. One of my fellow Blue Dogs wrote an op-ed in which he said that it takes a steel spine to be a moderate lawmaker in today’s political climate. I would add that it also takes a thick skin. If you were to read the comments section of my Twitter or Facebook feed, which I don’t recommend you do, you may see me referred to as a “socialist” by the far right and as a “disloyal Democrat” by the far left. As I like to say, if you drive down the center of the highway, you should expect to get hit by cars in both the right and left lanes. By the way, I always scratch my head at the “socialist” charge since my family fled a socialist country and I am well-versed in socialism’s flaws. I can assure you I am a proud capitalist, just one who believes there is more we can do to make capitalism work better for all Americans. In fact, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that said precisely that! The fact that I felt compelled to make that point underscores the sorry state of political discourse in this country right now.
My final point is this. I never let a little criticism on social media obscure what I regard as a fundamental truth, which is that the vast majority of Americans are tired of partisan games and gridlock. They’re not impressed by simplistic responses to serious, complex problems—including problems in our health care system. They expect their elected leaders to do their homework; to identify thoughtful solutions to our country’s most pressing challenges; and then to build enough bipartisan support so those solutions can become law and make an actual difference in people’s lives.
That is, and always will be, my north star.
Thank you again for all you do to help patients. And thank you again for inviting me to speak.