Obama’s Surgeon General Pick: Alabama Doctor With Record of Service to Rural Poor

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With all the news focused on Sonya, you will be forgiven for missing that Obama announced his Surgeon General nominee today. Sue Sturgis at Facing South calls her:

…a trailblazing African-American physician with a long record of service to the rural poor in Alabama.

Dr. Regina Benjamin’s perspective as someone who has provided care in an under-served community — and whose own family has been touched by America’s various public health crises — will be critical as Congress debates how to reform the health care system.

Benjamin is the founder and CEO of the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama, a facility that offers primary care to people of all ages regardless of ability to pay. She previously chaired the Federation of State Medical Boards and served as the associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.

In 2002, when she was elected president of the Medical Association of Alabama, Benjamin became the first African-American woman to preside over a state medical society. She was also the first African-American woman and physician under 40 to be elected to the American Medical Association board of trustees. She is a recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights as well as a MacArthur Foundation genius award.

Slate’s Christopher Beam asks, Is she fantastic or, as some dissenters claim, merely marvelous?

Driving the praise was Benjamin’s compelling personal story, which, along with a fitness obsession, now seems to be a prerequisite for serving in the Obama administration. Benjamin studied at Morehouse and the Alabama School of Medicine; started a family practice in a fishing village called Bayou la Batre, Ala.; got her MBA at Tulane; and converted her practice to a medical clinic for the poor. Those who couldn’t pay, she treated for free. After Hurricanes George and Katrina twice destroyed the clinic, she went into debt to rebuild it. Along the way, she was named one of Time‘s “50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under” and won a MacArthur “genius” grant. It’s like something out of Reader’s Digest. Oh wait—it is.

A bit about what she faces:

[T]he surgeon general’s role is largely titular, and some members of the corps want to see the position strengthened; they say Hurricane Katrina exposed flaws in the chain of command. During an emergency, for example, the surgeon general has to ask the heads of CDC and NIH for permission to deploy their scientists, which slows down response time. When a disaster forces a corps member to leave his job temporarily, there’s often no one to take his place. Public health service officials are also trying to get funding for Health and Medical Response Teams that would be on call to respond to natural disasters and other health emergencies. It would be Benjamin’s job to push for that kind of federal support.

Where Benjamin will really distinguish herself, though—or fall face first—is in the role of advocate. In a press conference introducing Benjamin, Obama took several minutes to plug his plan for health care reform, thus putting her nomination squarely in the context of the health care battle… But advocacy may be harder than it looks. On the one hand, Benjamin will have to push for wellness and prevention without getting bogged down in politics.

You may be interested in her NIH bio. Or her MacArthur Foundation profile.

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  • DaGoat

    I listened to her speech and Obama's presentation talking about how her clinic was destroyed by two hurricanes then burned down. I couldn't help but think of the famous bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

    King of Swamp Castle: When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.