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Amid Ebola worry, nomination for surgeon general languishes

Dr. Vivek Murthy was in Washington in February for a confirmation hearing to be surgeon general.
Associated Press
Dr. Vivek Murthy was in Washington in February for a confirmation hearing to be surgeon general.

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after President Obama chose a Brookline doctor to be the next surgeon general, the 37-year-old nominee is still waiting to be confirmed by the Senate, even as the administration seeks public health leadership amid the Ebola scare.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, a Harvard and Yale graduate who cofounded a political group that advocated for the Affordable Care Act, has been working as an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s hospital, awaiting an up-or-down vote that may never come.

Republicans have blasted his credentials, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas saying on CNN Sunday that Obama should have appointed a “health professional.” The National Rifle Association, in the wake of Murthy’s posts on Twitter, has accused him of attacking Second Amendment rights. Democrats have failed to unite behind him.

JOAN VENNOCHI: How the NRA thwarted a good doctor

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Obama, meanwhile, on Friday appointed an “Ebola czar,” Ron Klain, an expert in managing political crises who has no health background. Klain will not need Senate confirmation, but his appointment was seen by many observers as a sign that the administration had not been able to convey a public sense of control of the situation.

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“The right surgeon general could be a unifying force,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, who held the post during George W. Bush’s presidency. “The right surgeon general has the credibility.”

Carmona, who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat in Arizona as a Democrat after serving the Republican president, did not support Murthy’s nomination, saying that Murthy did not have the experience and leadership credentials.

But other public health professionals, colleagues, and many Democrats have praised Murthy as a gifted and dedicated physician.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who introduced Murthy at his confirmation hearing in February, blamed Republican obstruction and “right-wing groups [that] have decided they have a problem with his medical opinion that we ought to reduce the number of gun deaths in this country.”

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“We can’t govern crisis to crisis to crisis, but that’s what the Republicans are forcing us to do,” Warren said in an interview Monday.

Republicans, however, noted that Democrats who control the Senate could have confirmed Murthy without any help from Republicans under rule changes enacted last year that allow confirmation with a simple majority.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid has declined to put the nomination up for a vote, with a leadership aide telling the Globe in March that there was uncertainty over whether some Democrats would support it. The White House said at the time that it was readjusting its strategy after a nomination for another high-level post failed. (A White House spokesman, asked to comment on the nomination, responded by e-mail that the surgeon general plays “an important role in the education of Americans on public health issues.”)

“Senator Reid has not yet tried to bring up the nomination, due, no doubt, to the bipartisan opposition,” Don Stewart, spokesman for minority leader Mitch McConnell, said in an e-mail.

Republicans questioned Murthy during his Senate confirmation hearing in February over comments he made on Twitter supporting gun control. During the 2012 campaign, Murthy used the Twitter account to issue strong praise for Obama and denunciations of his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

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“Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA,” he wrote in October 2012, a comment that remains on his Twitter feed. “Guns are a health care issue.”

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Murthy, who declined to comment for this article, said at the hearing that he believed the surgeon general should focus on areas where there is broad agreement, including prevention of chronic diseases, efforts to curb smoking, and programs to improve diets. And Warren said Monday that the surgeon general has no authority to set gun control policy.

Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat facing a tough election in Alaska, said this year that he was leaning against supporting the nomination. Democrats are also facing tough electoral challenges in Louisiana, Arkansas, and New Hampshire, among other states where NRA opposition could be a political liability.

Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois was the only Republican to join a 13-9 vote in February that supported the nomination in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Surgeon generals are not members of the president’s Cabinet and have little formal authority. Instead, they advise the administration and rely on a public platform to crusade for public health causes. The late C. Everett Koop, who held the job under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was the best-known person to hold the position, in large part because he used it to wage an unprecedented campaign to curb cigarette smoking and spoke out about AIDS prevention at a time when the disease was taboo.

EDITORIAL: Obama must stand by Murthy

Though an acting surgeon general currently holds the post, public health experts lament the absence of a confirmed official as Ebola concerns spread.

“The surgeon general would be playing a vital role as a voice speaking directly to the American people,” Dr. David Satcher, a former surgeon general under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview.

But he said it would be inappropriate for the surgeon general to act as Ebola czar, because the position would lose its independence.

“There’s no point being a surgeon general if the only thing you say is what the White House wants you to tell people,” he said.

Murthy was born in England to Indian immigrants, went to high school in Miami, and graduated from Harvard College in three years, magna cum laude, with a degree in biochemical sciences. He earned a combined medical and business degree from Yale. Murthy also cofounded and still serves as president of Doctors for America, an organization of 16,000 doctors and medical students that advocated for Obama’s health law.

He is also the founder of other public health groups and startups, including an HIV/AIDS education program serving youth in India and the United States and a community program serving rural India. He has also conducted research on vaccine development, according to his Doctors for America biography.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.