How Politics Ruined The Office Of The Surgeon General

Richard Carmona Former Surgeon General
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On Dec 15 the U.S. Senate took action largely along party lines to confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as the next U.S. Surgeon General. This nomination has languished for a year due to insufficient Senate support for Dr. Murthy.

But, as the lame duck session entered its 11th hour, Senator Reid again invoked the nuclear option to clear the way for Dr. Murthy’s confirmation.

Dr. Murthy barely received enough votes to be confirmed – culling together the support of just 51 Senators primarily along party lines. This is indeed unfortunate since the doctor of the nation needs bipartisan support to be successful. For disease and the public’s health knows no party affiliation.

Dr Murthy is a gifted young physician very early in his career. He has some early significant accomplishments behind him but no formal public health training and little management or senior leadership experience. His nomination became controversial due to his inexperience and his political advocacy and perceived bias and on several issues.

That being said it is important to recognize that the problem is in the politicization of the Surgeon General nomination process and Dr. Murthy’s  nomination and confirmation simply reflect that dysfunction.

The Surgeon General is the leader of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The position carries with it the rank of Vice Admiral. This is a three star rank equivalent to the Surgeons General of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The difference is that the Army, Navy and Air Force Surgeons General earn their rank and title after decades of selfless service, as did the U.S. Surgeon General before politicians began to circumvent the uniformed service merit system for their own benefit.

This blatant act of political self-interest does not benefit the public but does undermine the credibility of the office of the Surgeon General and serves to demoralize and demean the career uniformed service of our men and women who are now marginalized and prevented form meritoriously being considered for Surgeon General as they once were.

Partisan politicians acting in self-interest is nothing new. However, we should recognize that by politically conferring the rank of vice admiral and the title of Surgeon General on any person who has not earned that right you are actually disadvantaging that person from the start. In the beltway where the Surgeon General resides and works his peers are real admirals, generals and senior health professionals who have earned their respective positions.

Politicians have many opportunities such as ambassadorships and appointed partisan positions to reward political support and advocacy. The office of the Surgeon General should never be a pawn for political patronage. The public expects and deserves the most qualified public health professional who merits consideration.

Ironically, if not but for a late political strategic blunder by a Republican senator, Dr. Murthy’s name may never have been advanced for confirmation.

Putting the plague of politics aside we now must turn to the more important issue of  protecting the health, safety and security of the nation. Dr. Murthy is fortunate in that he will be surrounded by members of the USPHCC. True professionals who, after many years of public health leadership and management experience, can provide him with historical perspective and public health guidance moving forward.

Dr. Murthy would be wise to follow their lead.