By Tracy Kawabata, Asian MBA Staff Editor.
NEW YORK - January 14, 2015.
It’s been a little under a month since the Office of the Surgeon General re-opened with its new leader, Indian American M.D. and M.B.A. Dr. Vivek Murthy, at the helm.
The delay in the Senate following Murthy’s nomination by the President in 2013 left Americans without a strong voice on public health for over a year, notably following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the panic surrounding its spread this past autumn to American soil.
Widely applauded in public health and medical communities, Murthy graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in three years, going on to obtain an M.B.A. and an M.D. from Yale. At 37 years old, he is the youngest to occupy the post to date, and not unlike the bright, young community organizer-cum-politician who nominated him, he could be reasonably criticized as a contender due to his age and relative lack of experience.
But one thing that hasn’t been much discussed is his race.
While the 47-year-old presidential candidate Barack Obama was often portrayed by detractors as a foreigner with a strange name and questionable nationality (remember that elusive birth certificate?), the debate surrounding Murthy actually stemmed from a statement he made on Twitter in 2012:
Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they're scared of NRA. Guns are a health care issue. #debatehealth— Vivek Murthy (@vivek_murthy) October 17, 2012
The Tweet, along with an open letter to Congress he later penned with Doctors for America pushing for stricter gun control measures, led to strong pushback from the NRA and unusual discord over a title that bestows no direct legislative power. Regina Benjamin, the former Surgeon General under President Barack Obama, was confirmed unanimously, as was Richard Carmona before her under George W. Bush; the final Senate approval for Murthy was as narrow as many of its typical divisive, party-line votes at 51-43.
Whether or not the Surgeon General will use his new position as “bully pulpit” to lecture Americans about gun safety, his confirmation comes as a victory to Asian Americans. (And if he does start talking about guns, Karthick Ramakrishnan, Director of the National Asian American Survey and AAPIdata.com, argues that gun control is an Asian American issue, with 80% of Asian American respondents supporting stricter gun control measures versus a 50% average among registered US voters.)
Murthy is the first Indian American to hold the title, which confers the rank of Vice Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
"Our diaspora plays by the rules, and we really deserved to have a candidate who is one of us up there," Dr. Ravi Jahagirdar, president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, told the Huffington Post.
The sentiment has been echoed time and again by minority groups lacking representation in government. It was only in late December last year that the first Indian American Ambassador to India, Richard Rahul Verma, was sworn in.
Surprisingly, the post of the Surgeon General, which has existed since 1871, has been comparatively diverse over the past decades.
The first woman to occupy the position was Antonia C. Novello in 1990 under George H.W. Bush, and she was succeeded under Bill Clinton by Joycelyn Elders, the first African American to hold the title. David Satcher, an African American four-star admiral and Assistant Secretary for Health, followed in 1998. The interim following Satcher’s term was filled by Acting Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu, a Japanese American, for a period of one year.
Murthy has maintained a low public profile in the weeks following his confirmation, but has already taken measures to encourage health coverage enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, speaking off the record to Asian American groups like Asian MBA about its impact in the community.
Health care, the Obama administration and the Surgeon General stress, is an area of particular importance when it comes to unmet needs in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. According to the White House’s AAPI Initiative, the Number 1 objective is to “improve overall health outcomes for AAPIs by reducing health risks, improving access to quality health care, and promoting healthy living.”
Murthy was a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School before his nomination, but has also put his MBA to work by founding and managing Doctors for America, a group supporting comprehensive health reform, along with a nonprofit focused on HIV/AIDS education and a web platform that optimizes clinical trial operations.
“Dr. Murthy’s confirmation strengthens the AAPI community’s voice and presence, and marks a positive step toward addressing the need for greater diversity in all levels of government,” said Congressman Mike Honda in a statement from CAPAC, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “His confirmation also gives voice to overcoming AAPI health disparities and barriers to health care, including a lack of available culturally competent and linguistically accessible health care. As a physician, educator, and innovator, Dr. Murthy’s wealth of knowledge on public health issues will ensure his success in his new role. I’m looking forward to his great work safeguarding the health of our nation.”