Ebola scares. Antivaccination fads. Rampant obesity. Never has the U.S. been in more urgent need of a Surgeon General. The current nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, is an outstanding candidate who should have been approved and in place months ago to deal with these urgent challenges. Unfortunately, Congress refuses to take action.
The office of Surgeon General has been a proud and independent one. Surgeons General have a strong legacy of keeping to the facts, speaking clearly and honestly, and holding the country's health above politics. These are the physician -- leaders who convinced the country that tobacco was dangerous, procured funding for cancer research in fiscally-strained times, and educated the nation about scary infections. They represent the very best of what doctors can be, of what we look for in our own doctors.
Dr. C. Everett Koop, handpicked by President Reagan, was one of the few Surgeons General to become a household name. Opposing abortion on moral grounds, his nomination drew a great deal of criticism from liberals inside Congress and without. Yet his credentials and his character were respected and his nomination was approved despite the controversy. Then he proceeded to do what good doctors do: he made it very clear, in the subsequent stances he took on issues like abortion, that he would not blur the distinction between personal opinions and medical facts. He knew he was accountable not to politicians, special interests, or ideologies, but only to the medical science that supported the health and well being of the American public.
When the nation verged on the brink of hysteria over the HIV epidemic in the early 1980s, looking for scape goats and jumping at irrational solutions, Dr. Koop calmly, steadily looked America in its collective eye to talk about science and sex. Politicians, pastors and much of the public squirmed, but again he was a doctor's doctor -- he ignored taboos, and said what needed to be said. America listened, and got back on the road to problem-solving.
It was this same independent thinking and commitment to the public good that led Dr. Koop in 1992 to write an article in JAMA calling gun violence a "public health emergency," foreshadowing the stance that Dr. Murthy would take two decades later.
When President Obama nominated Dr.Murthy one year ago, he made a choice deserving of this impartial, courageous legacy. Like many of his esteemed predecessors, Vivek Murthy has a strong foundation in clinical medicine and healthcare economics. His endeavors include promoting effective clinical research as well as humanitarian initiatives to combat HIV. As a member of the President's National Prevention Council he is experienced in healthcare policy. I know him best in his role as patient advocate. He is the founder of Doctors for America, a grassroots physician organization whose mantra is "Patients Over Politics."
These remarkable credentials paint a bold picture of a Surgeon General for the 21st century -- a talented, dedicated physician of great integrity and vision who has what it takes to lead our country through global medical threats like the Ebola virus, and homegrown ones like obesity, all the while being committed to keeping the patient's best interest at the center of our complex healthcare system.
Unfortunately, Congress has been shirking his responsibilities. Bullied by special interests like the NRA, and committed only to partisanship and reelections, both parties have let this nomination sit in limbo for the past year. But what are Congress and the President waiting for? For Congress to put America's well being before their own political ambitions? For special interests to no longer have a stranglehold on our politicians? For President Obama to withdraw his support and serve up instead some Dr. Milktoast who won't offend anyone with facts?
History has shown us how much we need independent, outspoken Surgeons General. Yet by today's standards even Dr Koop would never have survived the nomination process.
We need today's political leaders to show the same courage and integrity as our past presidents and lawmakers did when they stood by their Surgeons General for the good of the country. President Obama needs to continue his well-placed support of Dr. Vivek Murthy, and Congress needs to hold the nomination hearings -- now.