In the midst of the Ebola crisis, the United States doesn’t have a confirmed surgeon general in place.
President Obama’s choice to be the nation’s “top doctor” couldn’t get the votes in the Senate in March, largely because of pressure from the National Rifle Association.
Vivek Murthy, the president’s nominee to be the next surgeon general, was too politically outspoken for some. He was an Obama supporter and an advocate for Obamacare. But he also said gun violence in America is a public health issue. So senators, including some Democrats, withheld support.
But does it matter? Depends where you fall politically, it seems. MSNBC published an op-ed, titled “How the NRA is making the Ebola Crisis Worse,” in which anchor Krystal Ball and MSNBC producer Anne Thompson make the case that it would be helpful to have the country’s top doctor on hand to speak to the American people about public health. Right-wing blogs scoffed. Conservative blog Hotair wrote in response that “the idea that only a political appointee at the cabinet level can fill this void is rather laughable.” (The surgeon general isn’t actually a cabinet-level position.)
The Loop reached out to Michael Leavitt, who was the health and human services secretary under George W. Bush, and Regina Benjamin, a former Obama administration surgeon general, for their thoughts.
Leavitt — who two GOP lawmakers cited as someone who would make an ideal White House point person to deal with Ebola (he demurred when we asked him whether he’d be interested) — said the surgeon general would make little difference in this crisis.
“The surgeon general has a big brand, but in terms of their capacity to execute health response, that really isn’t their responsibility, and this is a job that CDC is well equipped for and they have physicians more authoritative on this particular subject,” he told the Loop.
But Benjamin, who left the surgeon general job in July 2013, said that she viewed the role as if all Americans were her patients and it was her job to talk to them directly about health concerns.
“So, yes, there’s a major role in any crisis, in any potential crisis, any potential event that people are concerned about,” she said. “We need that level of trust and conversation that there is someone there in Washington as America’s doctor.”
There is an acting surgeon general in place, Boris Lushniak, but he has kept a low profile during the Ebola crisis, deferring to CDC Director Tom Frieden to speak publicly to educate and reassure the people.
But if Americans seek guidance and comfort from their surgeon general, the office’s Web site does have a link to Ebola facts at the top of its homepage.
(This post has been updated to correct MSNBC producer Anne Thompson’s title.)