More than a year after he was nominated by President Barack Obama, the US Senate, defying the powerful pro-gun lobby National Rifle Association, voted to confirm Dr Vivek Hellegere Murthy as the first Indian American US Surgeon General and the youngest ever at age 37, in a cliff-hanger of a 51-43 vote.
At 6.11 pm on Monday, 41 minutes after the senate vote had begun, the tally stood at 45-43 in favour of confirming Murthy, but a minute later it moved to 47-43 and at 6.13 pm to 50-43. A minute later Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia cast his vote giving Murthy the 51st vote to confirm him by a simple majority.
And in less than 10 minutes, the White House put out a statement from President Obama applauding the senate vote “for confirming Vivek Murthy to be our country’s next Surgeon General,” and predicted, “As ‘America’s Doctor,’ Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe.”
Obama said, “He’ll bring his lifetime of experience promoting public health to bear on priorities ranging from stopping new diseases to helping our kids grow up healthy and strong.”
“Vivek will also help us build on the progress we’ve made combating Ebola, both in our country and at its source,” he said, and added, “Combined with the crucial support for fighting Ebola included in the bill to fund our government next year, Vivek’s confirmation makes us better positioned to save lives around the world and protect the American people here at home.”
Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, was the lone Republican who voted for Murthy, while three Democrats in conservative red states -- apparently deathly afraid of the NRA, as are the GOP members who are beholden to it -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana voted against Murthy.
Also voting against Murthy, was Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the founder and co-chair of the Senate India Caucus and other high profile Republicans like Senators John McCain -- the first US lawmaker to meet with Prime Minister Modi -- and Mitch McConnell, who will take over from Senator Harry Reid as Majority Leader come January after the GOP regained the senate majority in the mid-term elections in November.
Preceding the vote, Senator Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat and the Majority Whip, took to the senate floor and exhorted his colleagues not to capitulate to the pressure and the threats from the NRA, which had warned that it would ‘score’ each and every Senator vis-à-vis their vote, essentially serving notice that if they vote for Murthy, they would be on their hit list in future political campaigns.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, said in a statement, “The NRA's position hasn't changed. America's next surgeon general should not be a political operative whose professional inexperience has been a source of bipartisan concern.”
But Durbin praised Murthy for his dedication to fighting obesity, tobacco related diseases, and other chronic diseases that account for seven out of the top 10 causes for death in America and make up for 84 percent of America’s health care costs.
In addition to some intense and sustained lobbying by the Indian American community, who flooded senators offices with e-mails and phone calls in addition to meeting personally with several of the lawmakers, Murthy’s nomination was supported by over 100 public health and medical organisations including the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Paediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association.
Durbin said, “I know that the Indian-American community is very proud of Dr Murthy’s accomplishments, as all of us should be. I hope my colleagues will join me in voting for this outstanding nominee to be our next surgeon general. There’s a lot of work to do, and I can think of no better doctor to do it.”
Durbin said, “Part of what is extraordinary, about Murthy -- a Harvard and Yale-educated physician -- who is an attending physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at HarvardMedicalSchool, is that as well as treating his patients individually, he also thinks about the systemic issues affecting the health of his patients and strives to tackle those too.”
“He is a leading voice in public health, publishing his research on the participation of women and minorities in cancer clinical trials in top journals including Science, Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute,” Durbin added.
“Dr Murthy also co-founded and chairs Trial Networks, a software company that helps clinical researchers collaborate more effectively and efficiently with drug developers to speed up drug discovery,” Durbin noted.
Durbin recalled that in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health Committee last February, “Dr Murthy stated that, if confirmed, he would prioritise his efforts on obesity and tobacco-related disease, and would make prevention and health promotion the backbone of our communities.”
Durbin said he was convinced that “Dr Murthy understands the importance of the national crises before him, and feel confident that his experiences, his training, and his tenacity have provided him the qualifications he needs to tackle these issues, and the many more he’s sure to face, head-on.”
“There’s a lot of work to do, and I can think of no better doctor to do it,” he said.
Just before the roll-call vote, two Democratic Senators from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy -- who hail from the state where two years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children, which led to Murthy’s tweet and statements against gun violence that raised the ire of NRA -- also made passionate remarks on behalf of Murthy and exhorted their colleagues to vote to confirm Murthy.
Blumenthal bemoaned of how for over a year with all of the challenges and crises in public health, including the Ebola epidemic, there was no Surgeon General “because of misplaced and misguided opposition.”
He said, “If the question was only about his qualifications, he’d (Murthy) be in that position right now, confirmed by the US Senate, but unfortunately, he’s been blocked.”
Blumenthal said, “The only point that was raised against him unconscionably and unnecessarily, is a political smokescreen, essentially going to comments he’s made about gun violence as a public health issue.”
“The simple fact is, gun violence, impacts far too many people, it destroys far too many lives, it’s the second leading cause of deaths in this country after car crashes.” Blumenthal added.
Blumenthal said, “That smokescreen about gun violence should not have blocked him and should not impede this body voting for him, approving him as Surgeon General, because of his qualifications and because he will contribute enormously to make Americans healthier and safer in this country.”
“So, I am enthusiastically and proudly a supporter of him and I ask my colleagues to approve him as Surgeon General of the United States to make America safer and healthier and to reject the slick smokescreen that has tried to stop him.”
Murphy, echoing Blumenthal’s remarks, said, “There are absolutely no questions about the qualifications of Dr Vivek Murthy. He is the right man.”
“In addition to his professional background, in addition to his teaching responsibilities, he also has a really impressive history of commitment to international public health, building two international organisations that empower hundreds of youth in the US and India to educate over 45,000 students on HIV prevention and then another one that works in rural health partnerships in India, training young women to be health educators and counsellors for thousands of patients,” Murphy added.
Murphy said, “That’s a pretty impressive record when you combine it with what Senator Blumenthal laid out for a still fairly young physician -- someone’s who’s going to bring an enormous amount of energy to this job at a moment when we need it. Ebola is at the top of the list as to why we need a Surgeon General right now.”
Murphy also slammed the NRA for opposing Murthy’s nomination despite the fact that the US Surgeon General doesn’t set gun violence policy.
He said, “If a nominee for federal office is unqualified simply because they have pointed out that gun violence is an issue that we should work on, then the debate is so far removed from what is happening on the ground floor of this country as to be possibly irretrievable for the purposes of common-sense debate.”
Murphy said, “That’s what Dr Murthy has essentially said -- that gun violence is a problem that we should be working on. And, if we can’t even get to the point that we all agree on that generation notion….then maybe this is more hopeless than I thought.”
He said, “I am glad that we are going to move forward on a vote,” and reiterated, “He’s qualified to do this job, has an admirable background in public health policy and practice of medicine and in the teaching of medicine.”
But earlier, Manchin, obviously pandering to the NRA said in a statement that the Surgeon General “serves as America’s leader on public health services and chooses what health policies we should prioritise. For that reason, I don’t believe it’s appropriate for America’s number one doctor to participate in political activism.”
Heitkamp questioned whether Murthy had enough health experience, arguing that “there are severe gaps in his basic qualifications that we as a country expect from our doctor of the nation -- including experience in public health education training and management.”
However, she acknowledged, “Dr. Murthy is a talented individual who I have no doubt has a promising career ahead of him.”
Donnelly also called Murthy “a talented physician” but said he had “concerns about his ability to serve as our nation’s leading medical voice on critical public health issues.”
McConnell echoing Manchin’s contention, said, “With America facing the challenge of Ebola and other serious health challenges, it’s unfortunate that the President chose a nominee based on the candidate’s political support instead of a long career delivering patient care and managing difficult health crises.”
John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and an orthopaedic surgeon, lauded Murthy’s academic credentials but said he is unqualified for the position on several fronts. “Is Dr. Murthy a renowned expert in treating patients or researching diseases? No, not at all. He's not. Has he actually built a career teaching medicine or leading public health organizations? No, not yet.”
He also said on the senate floor that Murthy has been “an activist focused on gun control and political campaigns,” and that America should have had an “experienced doctor in the job of surgeon general to lead our fight against Ebola.”
Chiming in, Senator Lamar Alexander, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health Committee, said, “Unfortunately, Dr Murthy’s experience does not demonstrate the leadership and knowledge of public health that we expect from our surgeons general.”
The GOP Senators, besides the pressure from the NRA, were also out to spike Murthy’s nomination because they charged that Murthy’s Doctors for America, during Obama’s presidential campaign was originally Doctors for Obama and had later morphed into one of the strongest advocates for Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act or Obamacare as they derogatorily termed it.
Meanwhile, Murthy's confirmation was hailed by anti-gun violence groups, with Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group co-founded by former US Congresswomen Gabby Giffords, Arizona Democrat, who was also shot by a deranged gunman and nearly lost her life and her husband, famed atronaut, Mark Kelly.
Saying Murthy’s confirmation was ‘long overdue,’ the Kelly, on behalf of the group, said in a statement. “Tonight, the United States Senate did the responsible thing: It stood up to the gun lobby, stood up for common sense, and voted to ensure that the United States has a qualified medical professional as its top doctor.”
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which is strongly backed and funded by the former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an avid gun control advocate, declared that Murthy’s confirmation was a victory against the NRA.
Feinblatt said in a statement, “This is about more than just the confirmation of our country’s top doctor; it’s also a defeat for the gun lobby that has fought tooth-and-nail to keep gun violence prevention off of the agenda in Washington.”
He said, “For decades the NRA has suppressed funding for research to understand gun violence and pushed for legislation to muzzle doctors and military leaders from being able to talk to their patients or troops about firearm safety.”
Image: Dr Vivek Murthy (far left) with his parents, mother Myetraie (centre) and father Dr Hallegere Murthy (right), also a physician in Miami, Florida.