By Alexi Mostrous and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Regina M. Benjamin, an Alabama family physician who served for almost two decades as one of the few doctors in a shrimping village along the Gulf Coast, was nominated as U.S. surgeon general yesterday by President Obama.
Flanked by the president and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a Rose Garden ceremony, Benjamin, 52, promised to act as "America's doctor" if appointed.
Her nomination comes more than three months after Obama's first choice for surgeon general, CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, pulled out, leaving the administration without a top health official even as the H1N1 flu was reaching pandemic proportions worldwide.
Obama used the announcement to stress his commitment to passing health-care reform legislation, and he said Benjamin would be a crucial voice in the debate. "For nearly two decades, Dr. Regina Benjamin has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health-care system," he said. " She 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 has garnered nationwide praise for founding a rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala. More than 40 percent of the town's 2,500 residents have no health insurance.
The physician, who in September received a "genius award" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, rebuilt the center three times after it was destroyed by hurricanes and fire. Stories abound of Benjamin making house calls in a muddy Toyota pickup, and accepting buckets of shrimp from patients too poor to pay cash.
In 2002, she became the first African American woman to be president of a state medical society when she was appointed to head the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. Benjamin graduated from Xavier University, Morehouse School of Medicine and the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and her medical training was paid for by the National Health Service Corps, a federal program in which medical students promise to work in areas with few doctors in exchange for free tuition.
Benjamin said the position would be more than just a job. "My father died with diabetes and hypertension. My older brother died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. My mother died of lung cancer because as a young girl she wanted to smoke, just like her twin brother could.
"My family's not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases. While I can't change my family's past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation's health care and our nation's health for the future."
If confirmed by the Senate, Benjamin will be tasked with issuing crucial public health messages as well as heading up the uniformed Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and advising on issues such a smoking, obesity and exercise.
Louis Sullivan, a former secretary of health and human services who has known Benjamin since her days at Morehouse, described her as "a person of outstanding scientific qualifications and excellent communication skills."
"She's persistent," he said in an interview. "In spite of the fact that her clinic was destroyed, she rebuilt it. I remember speaking to her as a student in 1979 and she said that she wanted to go back to a small community in Alabama and serve as a physician. She has adhered to that plan even while her national and global reputation increased."
Benjamin, a practicing Catholic, is on the board of various Catholic medical groups, including the Catholic Health Association of the United States.
In February, the Obama administration moved to undo a last-minute Bush administration policy that granted protections to doctors who refused to take part in abortions, a policy supported by the CHA.
Sister Carol Keehan, the association's president and chief executive, said yesterday: "The Catholic Health Association rejoices for our nation in the nomination of Dr. Regina M. Benjamin as surgeon general of the United States."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.