July 26, 2009
President Barack Obama turned to the Deep South for the next surgeon general, choosing a rural Alabama family physician who made headlines with fierce determination to rebuild her nonprofit medical clinic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Dr. Regina Benjamin is known along Alabama's impoverished Gulf Coast as a country doctor who makes house calls and doesn't turn away patients who can't pay — even as she's had to find the money to rebuild a clinic repeatedly destroyed by hurricanes and once even fire.
"For all the tremendous obstacles that she has overcome, Regina Benjamin also represents what's best about health care in America, doctors and nurses who give and care and sacrifice for the sake of their patients," Obama said Monday in introducing his choice for a job known as America's doctor.
He said Benjamin will bring insight as his administration struggles to revamp the health care system:
Saying she "has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system," Obama said Benjamin will bring important insight as his administration tries to revamp that system.
Benjamin called the job "a physician's dream," and pledged to be a voice for patients in need — and to fight the preventable diseases that claim too many lives each year, including nearly her entire family.
Her father died with diabetes and high blood pressure, her only brother of HIV, her mother of lung cancer "because as a young girl, she wanted to smoke just like her twin brother could" — an uncle now on oxygen as a result, she noted.
"I cannot 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," Benjamin said. "I want to be sure that no one falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system."
The surgeon general is the people's health advocate, a bully pulpit position that can be tremendously effective with a forceful personality. Benjamin has that reputation.
Pushed by the need in her own shrimping community of Bayou La Batre, Ala., and its diverse patient mix — white, black and, increasingly immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — Benjamin, 51, has emerged as a national leader in the call to improve health disparities. She became the first black woman and the first doctor under age 40 elected to the American Medical Association's board of trustees, and in 2002 became the first black woman to head a state medical society.
"She's always been very ambitious from a political standpoint. She has always, always been motivated by that ambition," said Dr. James Holland, CEO of Mostellar Medical Center in nearby Irvington, Ala., where Benjamin spent about three years in the early 1980s as a National Health Service Corps scholar.
Holland said Benjamin's selection as surgeon general "doesn't surprise me at all. The only thing that surprises me is that it hasn't happened before now."
Medical groups welcomed her ability for straight-talk, whether to patients or politicians, about the dire health needs of much of the country.
"We want to emphasize prevention, primary care and early intervention, and we have somebody now who does that for a living," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, no relation, of the American Public Health Association.
Added AMA President Dr. James Rohack, who has known Benjamin for more than two decades. With "her recognition that if you don't have health insurance, you live sicker and you die younger, she can bring the real-world perspective as surgeon general of the things as a nation we need to do to keep ourselves healthy."
Benjamin made headlines in the wake of Katrina, as photographs showed her laying patient charts out to bake in the sun and lamenting the lack of pricey but more hurricane-resistant electronic records. Her nonprofit clinic was rebuilt by volunteers only to burn down just as it was about to reopen. Benjamin later told of her patients' desperation that she rebuild again, recalling on woman who handed her an envelope with a $7 donation to help.
"If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest," Benjamin said last fall as she received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius award," money she said she'd use to help finish that job.
Her nomination for surgeon general requires Senate confirmation.