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Obama Chooses Alabama Doctor For Surgeon General

July 13, 2009

President Barack Obama’s pick on Monday for the new U.S. surgeon general is a rural Alabama family physician that has pledged to help support his healthcare reform agenda, Reuters reported.

Dr. Regina Benjamin’s own family and patients were victims of the failing U.S. system after her nonprofit medical clinic suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“Through floods and fire and severe want, Regina Benjamin has refused to give up. Her patients have refused to give up,” Obama said in a White House Rose Garden announcement.

Benjamin has expressed desire to serve in the traditional role of surgeon general by encouraging healthy habits as well as advocating to make medical care more easily available to all Americans.

“My hope, if confirmed as surgeon general, is to be America’s doctor, America’s family physician,” she said.

Benjamin promised to communicate directly with the American people to help guide them through whatever changes may come with healthcare reform.

Last year, Benjamin won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for creating the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic to serve a Gulf Coast fishing community in 1990.

However, Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005 destroyed the clinic, and it was damaged by fire a third time.

“We don’t have to deal with hurricanes, we don’t have to deal with floods and we don’t have to deal with fires. All we have to do is pass a bill,” Obama said during a Rose Garden news conference to step up pressure on Congress to pass the $1 trillion, 10-year healthcare reform bill.

Obama praised her for passing on personal profit to care for her patients.

Obama spoke of how Benjamin mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild the clinic for a second time after Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of her town homeless.

She is a prot©g©e of two prominent black health officials: Dr. Louis Sullivan, a former Health and Human Services secretary who founded the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta to educate black doctors, and former surgeon general Dr. David Satcher.

Benjamin attended Morehouse and received her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has an MBA from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Benjamin listed her own family as an example of why healthcare reform is vital, as her father died with diabetes and hypertension and her older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of HIV-related illness. Her mother died of lung cancer “because as a young girl she wanted to smoke, just like her twin brother could”.

“While I cannot change my family’s past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation’s healthcare and our nation’s health for the future,” she said.

The surgeon general essentially serves as the people’s health advocate, a position that can be tremendously effective with a forceful personality such as Benjamin’s.

“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.

Dr. Georges Benjamin (no relation) of the American Public Health Association said they want to emphasize prevention, primary care and early intervention, and they now “have somebody who does that for a living”.

The Senate must confirm her nomination for surgeon general.

Image Caption:  President Barack Obama, with Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, right, announces his new Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin, left, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, July 13, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

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