Senate (finally) confirms Vivek Murthy, country’s first South Asian American Surgeon General

December 16, 2014

Vivek Murthy

It only took the US Senate 13 months.

Dr. Vivek Murthy was nominated by the Obama Administration in November 2013 to replace acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, who held the position from July  2013 in the wake of former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin’s resignation. Murthy, who holds both an MD and an MBA, was born in Huddersfield, England to parents hailing from Karnataka, India; the family moved to Miami, Florida when Murthy was three years old. Murthy earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his medical degree from Yale School of Medicine in 2003, and was one of the founding members of Doctors for America — a group of physicians supporting comprehensive healthcare reform. In addition to this group, Murthy has founded several other non-profits and organizations aimed at improving healthcare in this country.

Murthy is everything one might look for in a surgeon general: a physician committed not just to his medical practice but also to political advocacy, all focused towards improving healthcare access. So why is it took over a year for the Senate to approve this highly-qualified nominee?

Of course: Republicans.

Murthy’s nomination was opposed by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights lobbyists who took issue with Murthy’s support of gun control as a national healthcare issue. In 2012, Murthy (@vivek_murthy) sent the following tweet:

Murthy is not wrong. To date, 1/6th of all injury-related deaths are due to a firearm discharge; over 32,000 Americans lost their lives to guns in 2010 alone. When all of these deaths — whether by suicide, homicide or accidental discharge — are grouped together (which is not normal practice for the CDC), firearm deaths would make the list among the top 10 leading causes of death in this country.

The role of the Surgeon General is to address matters of public health. The fact that thousands of Americans are dying each year due to firearms makes gun control a health care issue, and therefore within the purview of what a US Surgeon General might reasonably have an opinion on.

That being said, Murthy’s support for common sense gun control has never been the focus of Murthy’s nomination. He told the Washington Post earlier this year, “I do not intend to use the surgeon general’s office as a bully pulpit for gun control.”

Murthy has instead said in multiple venues that as US Surgeon General, he intends to maintain the office’s position as a public health educator, and to continue the focus on the nation’s ongoing obesity epidemic, which combined contributes to three of the nation’s top four causes of death: cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and stroke. Currently, roughly 1 in 3 Americans are overweight or obese, many of them the nation’s children; obesity-related healthcare treatment currently costs Americans $147 billion dollars annually.

In the face of this obvious healthcare epidemic — as well other highly-publicized public health including fears over Ebola — it is shameful that Republican obstinance sentenced Americans to 13 months without a confirmed US Surgeon General who might have helped to alleviate fears and advance public information on these topics.

While we should congratulate Dr. Murthy for being confirmed as the country’s next US Surgeon General, let’s not forget that blame for the delay in Murthy’s confirmation rests entirely on Republicans. If not for the lame duck session called by Republicans this past week related in a failed attempt to pass legislation opposing the President’s executive action on immigration, Murthy’s nomination might still be stalled. Murthy’s confirmation is a happy accident that arose when Republicans got too greedy; but it is also a signal of the kind of shenanigans we can continue to expect from the a Republican-controlled do-nothing Congress in the coming two years.

Dr. Murthy is America’s first South Asian American and first Indian American US Surgeon General, and the first Asian American surgeon general to undergo Senate confirmation. The first Asian American US surgeon general was acting Surgeon General Rear Admiral Kenneth P. Moritsugu who was appointed to the position between July 31, 2006 and September 30, 2007.

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