Republicans criticize surgeon general nominee at Senate hearing

Vivek Hallegere Murthy, President Obama's nominee to become surgeon general, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s choice to become the next surgeon general spent much of his confirmation hearing Tuesday deflecting criticism from Republicans, who attacked him for his political activism, ties to the president and relative inexperience.

Vivek Hallegere Murthy, who at 36 would be one of the youngest surgeon generals, was chided for advocating gun control in the aftermath of the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and for backing the Affordable Care Act as a co-founder of Doctors for America, formerly Doctors for Obama.

“Much of your work has been devoted to electing the current president and navigating the new healthcare law,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. “Much of your credential, it seems to me, is a political credential.”


Murthy, born in England and raised in Florida, denied he had any political ambitions. He said he would use his position to educate the public on health-related issues, particularly obesity, preventive care and community-health initiatives.

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“I do not intend to use the surgeon general’s office as a bully pulpit for gun control,” Murthy said, adding that he thought it was “very important to bring people together of all political stripes and beliefs.”

Committee Democrats praised his nomination and his record. Despite GOP criticism, Murthy is expected to win confirmation in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

As surgeon general, Murthy would serve a four-year term and continue chairing the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health, created under the Affordable Care Act.

He was nominated in November to replace acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, who took over in July after the resignation of Regina Benjamin.


Beyond his advocacy work, Murthy, a self-described entrepreneur, has co-founded TrialNetworks, which helps pharmaceutical companies run clinical trials more efficiently through social media platforms, and VISIONS Worldwide, a nonprofit group that promotes HIV/AIDS education in India and disadvantaged communities in the United States.

“I believe that the future of public health is a society where we have a continuum of health that runs through every institution and in every person,” he said at the Senate committee hearing.

After completing his undergraduate work at Harvard University, Murthy received a medical and business degree from Yale University. He works as an instructor and attending physician at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

In an interview, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona said Murthy’s medical experience did not justify his accession to the post.

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“He works part-time as a hospitalist,” said Carmona, who wasserved under President George W. Bush and who ran for U.S. Senate in Arizona as a Democrat in 2012. Murthy has “great potential,” he said, but he might need another 20 years before he would “merit” the title.


Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn., disagreed. Murthy has proved his “maturity and leadership” in national and global health organizations, Benjamin said in an interview.

“The office of surgeon general is not for a shrinking flower,” he said. It requires a person with “strong science-based views, who can follow the evidence and have the fortitude to get us to listen.”


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