Late Breaking News
Surgeon General Nominee Would Be a Strong Advocate for Health Reform
- Categorized in: August 2009 Issue
WASHINGTON, DC—As the debate over health care reform heated up in Congress last month, President Obama submitted a nominee for Surgeon General who would be a strong advocate for health reform—Dr Regina Benjamin. Doctor Benjamin, 53, has a long history as a family physician providing care to rural, poor, and underserved patients.
“For nearly two decades, Dr Regina Benjamin has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system,” President Obama said at a July 13 press conference. “She’s seen an increasing number of patients who’ve had health insurance for their entire lives suddenly lose it because they lost their jobs or because it’s simply become too expensive. She’s been a relentless promoter of prevention and wellness programs, having treated too many costly and preventable diseases and complications that didn’t have to happen. And she’s witnessed the shortage of primary care physicians in the rural and underserved areas where she works.”
Advocate for the Underserved
Born in 1956 in Mobile, AL, Dr Benjamin graduated from the second class at Morehouse School of Medicine, and then went on to earn her MD from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Her education was paid for by the National Health Service Corps, and in order to fulfill her obligation to that organization, Dr Benjamin returned home to Alabama to provide care in an underserved community, which she did for three years. However, while she could have moved on, Dr Benjamin decided to stay in the underserved regions of Alabama.
In 1990, she founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health clinic in Bayou La Batre, AL, a small shrimping town of about 2,500 people. Dr Benjamin became the only doctor in the racially diverse community where many live below the poverty line, frequently charging patients what they can pay, or treating them for free.
In 1998, the clinic was destroyed by Hurricane George, and Dr Benjamin made house calls to patients while the clinic was being rebuilt. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again, Dr Benjamin mortgaged her house to rebuild it. And when it was destroyed for a third time by a fire, she began rebuilding again—a process that is still underway.
In 1995, she became the first black woman elected to the American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. And, in 2008, she was one of 25 recipients of the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award.”
Taking Disease Personally
One of the surgeon general’s primary jobs is to help set the nation’s agenda when it comes to personal health and wellness. At the July press conference, Dr Benjamin stressed how deeply personal public health issues had become to her, since most of her family is dead due to one preventable illness or another.
Her father died with diabetes and hypertension, and her mother died of lung cancer as a result of smoking. Her older brother, and only sibling, died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. Her mother’s twin brother, one of the few surviving black World War II prisoners of war is still alive, but is homebound and in need of supplemental oxygen. “My family is not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases. While 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 for the future,” Dr Benjamin said.
She explained that, if made surgeon general, she would work to impress on health care providers the need for affordable, quality care for everybody. “For years I’ve worked to find resources to sustain a doctor’s office that treats patients without health insurance or the ability to pay out of their pockets,” she said. “It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients. It shouldn’t be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country.”
Also, she said that she would work to “shine a light” on the efforts of the 6,200 members of the US Public Health Service Commission Corps, the nation’s volunteer, uniformed medical service.
Her nomination hearings will be held in the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee, though no hearing has been scheduled yet.