President Obama today announced his intention to nominate Dr. Regina Benjamin to the position of United States Surgeon General. In doing so, Obama adds to his roster of daring and creative appointments: Benjamin is a Morehouse-trained physician and specialist in rural poverty and health outcomes who would be the second black woman to serve in the position. From her biography at the website of the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her a "genius grant" in 2008:
In 1990, she founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic to serve the Gulf Coast fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a village of approximately 2,500 residents devastated twice in the past decade by Hurricanes Georges, in 1998, and Katrina, in 2005. Despite scarce resources, Benjamin has painstakingly rebuilt her clinic after each disaster and set up networks to maintain contact with patients scattered across multiple evacuation sites. She has established a family practice that allows her to treat all incoming patients, many of whom are uninsured, and frequently travels by pickup truck to care for the most isolated and immobile in her region. Benjamin is skilled, as well, in translating research on preventive health measures into accessible, community-based interventions to decrease the disease burdens of her diverse patient base, which includes immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, who comprise a third of Bayou La Batre’s population.
The position as head of the US Public Health Service, which is typically more of a spokesperson/communications role, had gone unfilled in the months since CNN TV personality Sanjay Gupta reportedly turned down the job. Yet it is crucial one to the administration’s health care reform effort.
Obama said as much in a Rose Garden press conference this morning, where he took the opportunity to speak more forcefully than ever about the need to pass a health reform this year. "I just want to put everybody on notice," he told reporters. "Because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone: We are going to get this done. Inaction is not an option. And for those nay-sayers and cynics who think that this is not going to happen, don't bet against us. We are going to make this thing happen, because the American people desperately need it."
He also noted that Benjamin “understands the urgency of meeting this challenge in a personal and powerful way.” Indeed, her experience on the ground, with individuals of disadvantaged backgrounds struggling with negative health outcomes and the trials of navigating the United States health care and insurance system—not to mention the ravages of natural disasters like Katrina and George—is unique. Working in and coming from the impoverished American south also provides her with the rare quality of “empathy” for the sick that—despite what the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor suggest—is paramount to public service.
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