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A personal note on the surgeon general nomination fight

Vivek Murthy, President Obama's nominee to be U.S. surgeon general, testified on Capitol Hill  last month before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee . (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
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The Senate HELP committee voted recently to support Vivek Murthy's nomination to be surgeon general of the United States. The full Senate is now set for a vote. Murthy’s nomination was supported by every HELP Committee Democrat, alongside Republican Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.).  Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has placed a hold on Murthy's nomination. But under "nuclear option" rules, Murthy can be confirmed through a simple majority vote.

Paul looks askance at Murthy's activities on behalf of health reform. The senator especially rejects Murthy's views on gun policy. Doctors for America, the health reform advocacy group Murthy co-founded in 2009, sent this public letter to Congress with recommendations on gun policy after the Sandy Hook school massacre.  Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association strongly opposes Murthy and has announced that it will "score" this vote in determining senators' overall NRA ratings.

Neither liberals nor conservatives hold a monopoly of wisdom on gun policy. Reducing America’s high rate of gun violence demands less shouting and scoring and more methodical implementation of evidence-based policies to disrupt underground gun markets, to improve porous background check systems, to regulate particularly lethal weapons and to better-protect people at risk of accidents or suicide.

Murthy testified to the Senate HELP committee that child obesity, not guns, would be his main priority. An effective surgeon general must focus on one or two central issues on which he or she can command broad support across partisan lines. Gun policy is so polarizing right now. That’s an understandable decision. For the record, though, there’s nothing radical or strange in Murthy's positions on gun policy.

Paul objects that Murthy "continually referred to guns as a public health issue on par with heart disease." I'm puzzled by the senator's complaint. Gun homicides, suicides and accidents account for about 30,000 deaths in America every year. Of course, cancer and heart disease kill many more people. Yet guns account for about as many deaths as automobile accidents, and account for twice as many deaths as AIDS.

Murthy has mainly expressed standard gun policy positions held by trauma surgeons, emergency department staff, spinal cord injury specialists and others who treat victims of gun violence. On issue after issue, his views are far more representative of mainstream medical and public health opinion than are Paul's or the NRA's.

If you doubt me, check out this Congressional letter from the American Psychiatric Association after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Or read this piece from the American Academy of Pediatrics, or this one from the American College of Emergency Physicians Web site. Murthy's nomination is supported by many medical and public health leaders and leading professional societies, not to mention a long list of organizations ranging from the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society to the March of Dimes.

I’ve been a senior adviser to Doctors for America since 2009. I've watched Murthy mobilize thousands of doctors in both Red and Blue states on behalf of prevention efforts and health reform. I've listened to him interview leading medical-legal experts on practical alternatives in malpractice reform.

His commitment to public health, his discipline and energy will be great assets in his role as our nation's next surgeon general. His entrepreneurial and management experience extends beyond his clinical and professorial roles. He has founded companies focused on medical Internet technologies. He is well-equipped to help doctors, patients and the nation face new challenges of a rapidly changing and computerizing 21st century medical economy.

There's one other thing, too. My father was sick last year with a scary and somewhat unusual kidney cancer. Murthy went out of his way to look into the case. He connected us with the skilled team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that successfully treated my dad's cancer. Aside from the concrete medical details, Murthy took the time from his incredible schedule to be helpful and gracious in a difficult time. At one point he e-mailed some suggestions regarding a medical specialist, but then added: "Lastly, if/when your dad decided to come to Boston, let me know.  If there's any help he need while he's here - medical or non-medical - we'll make sure he's ok."

 Vivek was a skilled and caring doctor when my family needed help. I suppose that experience makes me a biased witness on his behalf. That should still count for something in a grueling and partisan confirmation process.

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.