Obama Names Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General

The doctor from rural Alabama has fought to change the healthcare system.

By + More

Several months after CNN's Sanjay Gupta withdrew his name from consideration for surgeon general, President Barack Obama has announced that Regina Benjamin, a family physician from Alabama, will fill the country's most important public-health post.

[Read more about Benjamin's work in rural Alabama.]

Benjamin, the first black woman to head a state medical society, may not have Gupta's glamour. But her determination to reform and improve healthcare has earned her national accolades, including a MacArthur Foundation "genius award," the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, and her selection as one of America's Best Leaders by U.S. News last year.

In 1990, Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic to serve a fishing community of 2,500. Eight years later, Hurricane Georges devastated the clinic. She rebuilt it, only to see Hurricane Katrina destroy it again in 2005. She rebuilt the clinic once more. It was destroyed by a fire. She now operates the clinic out of a rented house and, in a town where about 40 percent of residents are without health insurance, she won't turn any patient away for inability to pay. "For nearly two decades, Dr. Benjamin has seen, in a very personal way, what is broken about our healthcare system," Obama said. "Through floods and fires and severe want, Regina Benjamin has refused to give up."

Obama's choice of a doctor dedicated to changing the system is particularly timely as the debate over healthcare reform heats up. Declaring her dedication to ensuring that "no one—no one—falls through the cracks" of the healthcare system, Benjamin outlined in her speech after Obama announced her nomination how the failures of the system have affected her personally. Her father died of diabetes and hypertension, her only sibling of HIV-related complications, and her mother of lung cancer. "My family's not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases," she said.

Obama also used his announcement to take on critics of his healthcare reform plan, saying he was addressing the "chatter" that took place inside the beltway while he was away last week. "We are going to get this done," the president said. "Inaction is not an option." In an effort to address concerns over growing government spending, underlined that the plan "will not add to our deficit over the next decade" and will bring down costs in the long term. "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," he said.

Obama's pick is also timely because doctors say that the H1N1 flu virus, like other flu strains, is expected to ramp up in the fall—despite being largely off the radar in recent weeks. And any problems caused could be made smoother by having a surgeon general in place, since the most crucial aspect of the largely ceremonial position is serving as the government's main spokesperson on matters of public health.

Since the fall of 2007, the acting surgeon general has been Rear Adm. Steven Galson, a doctor who previously directed the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration and was an epidemiological investigator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.