Alabama Doctor Benjamin Nominated as Surgeon General

Monday, July 13, 2009

July 13 (Bloomberg) -- Regina Benjamin, a family physician who founded a clinic to serve the rural poor along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, was nominated by President Barack Obama to be U.S. surgeon general.

Obama used the announcement today to emphasize his commitment to passage this year of legislation overhauling the nation’s health-care system, and said Benjamin would be a crucial voice in the debate.

“For nearly two decades, Doctor Regina Benjamin has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system,” Obama said at the White House. She “also represents what’s best about health care in America: doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients.”

Benjamin, whose nomination is subject to Senate confirmation, called the position “a physician’s dream.” She said she was dedicated to preventative medicine, citing the deaths of family members from diabetes, lung cancer and HIV- related illnesses.

“My family’s not here with me today because of preventable diseases,” she said. While “I cannot change my family’s past,” she added, “I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s health care, and our nation’s health, for the future.”

Clinic Founder

Benjamin is the founder and chief executive officer of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, according to the MacArthur Foundation. The clinic and the town of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, were ravaged by Hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005. Benjamin worked in emergency rooms and nursing homes to earn extra money to keep the clinic running.

“She has been proven as a leader for this community,” said Stan Wright, Bayou La Batre’s mayor and a board member at Benjamin’s clinic. “She’s been proven through the toughest economic times and through disasters like Hurricane Katrina. I think this is the best choice that President Obama could ever have made.”

Benjamin has made a mission of treating Bayou La Batre’s poor and immigrant communities, traveling in a mud-caked Toyota pickup truck to visit her stranded patients after Hurricane Katrina, Wright said in a telephone interview. When her neighbors in the town couldn’t pay, Benjamin has taken bags of oysters or a pound of crabmeat from them, Wright said.

Best Care

“Doctor Benjamin never cared about money,” he said. “She made sure you got the best care and money was not the object.”

Benjamin will make a priority of ensuring “nobody will be turned away,” Wright said. “She’ll come up with some health- care policy to include every human being.”

Douglas Henley, chief executive officer of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said he expects Benjamin will take a wide view of her duties as surgeon general.

“She would call attention to disparities in health care, and to the need for health reform to focus on extending coverage to all Americans,” Henley said in a telephone interview. “I would expect this to be her broad focus, rather than past surgeons general who have called attention to a single issue like smoking or obesity.”

Health-Care Debate

Benjamin pledged to join in the administration’s push to pass legislation that would expand health-insurance coverage and revamp the system for treating and tracking patients.

“These are trying times in the health-care field,” she said. “As a nation, we have reached a sobering realization that our health-care system simply cannot continue on the path we are on.”

Benjamin grew up in Daphne, Alabama, according to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she received her medical degree in 1984. She was the first woman and first black to serve as president of the state’s medical association. She also was the first black woman elected to serve on the board of trustees of the American Medical Association.

Last year, she received a so-called genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthurFoundation and was named by U.S. News and World Report as among America’s best leaders.

Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, said in a statement her group “rejoices for our nation” in Benjamin’s nomination.

Keehan said Benjamin “will enrich the nation because she brings competence and integrity to this very important role. This is coupled with the daily experience of trying to meet the health care needs of a very vulnerable community.”

The position of surgeon general was created in 1870 to serve as the supervising surgeon for the U.S. hospital system and later as the administrator for the federal public-health system. The surgeon general’s role has evolved into that of a leading educator about public-health issues.

Sanjay Gupta, the television journalist and physician, was Obama’s original pick for surgeon general. Gupta withdrew from consideration in March, saying he wanted devote time to his family and his practice as a neurosurgeon while maintaining his broadcast career on CNN.


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