The US Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Vivek Murthy to be President Biden’s surgeon general, handing the administration one of its top public health officials amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who as U.S. Surgeon General under President Obama had served as the United States Surgeon General and advocated a “healthier and more compassionate America,” was confirmed by the US Senate on Tuesday, March 23rd for the second time as the Surgeon General of the United States. While Dr. Vivek Murthy says ending the coronavirus pandemic is his top priority, he’s also raised concerns over a relapsing opioid overdose crisis.
“I’m deeply grateful to be confirmed by the Senate to serve once again as your surgeon general,” Murthy said in a statement. “We’ve endured great hardship as a nation over the past year, and I look forward to working with you to help our nation heal and create a better future for our children.”
According to the Office of the Surgeon General, the so-called nation’s doctor is tasked with providing Americans with the best scientific information to “improve their health and reduce the risk of injury” while overseeing the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps’ more than 6,000 uniformed public health officers.
The vote on Murthy was 57-43, giving him bipartisan support. Biden’s coronavirus response can already count on plenty of star players, but Murthy has a particular niche. As a successful author he’s addressed issues of loneliness and isolation that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Roger Marshall (Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska) joined Democrats in supporting his nomination on Tuesday.
But getting the support of every Democratic senator wasn’t always guaranteed. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters last month that he hadn’t made a decision, but ultimately ending up voting for him Tuesday.
“Murthy has confirmed his commitment to remaining non-partisan as Surgeon General and reaffirmed his belief that the vast majority of gun-owning Americans are responsible and follow the law. For these reasons, I believe Dr. Murthy is qualified to be Surgeon General and I look forward to working with him to address the numerous issues facing our nation,” Manchin said in a statement.
Covid-19 has taken the lives of several members of Murthy’s extended family. He told senators during his confirmation hearing that he wants to help individuals and families protect themselves by conveying “clear, science-based guidance” to the general public. Persuading Americans to keep up such protective measures as wearing masks could well be his toughest challenge. Murthy served as co-chair of the Biden transition team’s coronavirus advisory board, and is said to enjoy a close personal relationship with the president.
Murthy’s family roots are in India, but as a youngster he lived in Miami. His father had a medical clinic, where both parents worked. The son spent weekends helping out and says that’s where he discovered the art of healing. “As a child, I watched them make house calls in the middle of the night and wake up early to visit patients in the hospital before heading to their office,” he told senators. “I have tried to live by the lessons they embodied: that we have an obligation to help each other whenever we can, to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, and to give back to this country that made their lives, and my life, and the lives of my children possible.”
Murthy’s style evokes the bedside manner of an empathetic physician. He “effectively conveys compassion and credibility at a time of great need for just that,” said Chris Jennings, a longtime health policy adviser to Democrats.
From his previous stint as surgeon general, Murthy says he is most proud of his efforts to call attention to the opioid epidemic, the consequences of which were not fully understood at the time. After dipping slightly, opioid deaths have again risen, driven by street formulations laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl. “We cannot neglect the other public health crises that have been exacerbated by this pandemic, particularly the opioid epidemic, mental illness and racial and geographic health inequities,” Murthy told senators.
Murthy has drawn opposition from gun rights advocates because of his longstanding assessment that mass shootings amount to a public health problem. But he told senators that while he supports the government studying gun violence as a problem, “my focus is not on this issue, and if I’m confirmed it will be on Covid, on mental health and substance use disorder.”
“He served our country with distinction, bringing much needed added attention to some of our nation’s most pressing public health challenges,” said Howard P. Forman, M.D., M.B.A., professor of diagnostic radiology, economics, and public health, and director of the M.D./M.B.A. Program. Forman served as a mentor to Murthy during his time at Yale. “We are all excited to see what the future holds for him, but I am confident that he will continue to be a very positive force for health and health care improvements.”
When President Obama nominated him as Surgeon General in 2013, Murthy immediately came under fire from the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress for his view that gun violence should be seen as a public health issue. But more than 100 medical and public health organizations around the country supported his nomination.
During the 2008 campaign, Murthy founded Doctors for Obama, an effort to increase engagement by physicians in the political process. After Obama’s election, the group became Doctors for America, which advocated for comprehensive health care reform. In 2011, Obama appointed Murthy to serve on the Presidential Advisory Council on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“For the grandson of a poor farmer from India to be asked by the President to look out for the health of an entire nation was a humbling and uniquely American story. I will always be grateful to our country for welcoming my immigrant family nearly 40 years ago and giving me this opportunity to serve,” he wrote on Facebook on Friday. He also offered thanks for “the privilege of a lifetime. I have been truly humbled and honored to serve as your Surgeon General. I look forward to working alongside you in new ways in the years to come. Our journey for a stronger, healthier America continues.”
Murthy advised Biden for several months during the campaign on the coronavirus pandemic and vowed to focus on the mental health impact if he was confirmed. “We know a lot of what we need to do, we just aren’t doing it. We have for example, programs that we could be investing in schools to help provide mental health counseling to kids to detect symptoms of mental illness early. We can train more mental health providers,” Murthy said.
While nominating Murthy to the job he had held under Obama, Biden had said in December 2020, that the Indian American Doctor would have expanded responsibilities under his administration amid the coronavirus pandemic. “He will be a key public voice on the COVID response to restore public trust and faith in science and medicine,” Biden said, adding one of the reasons he nominated Murthy is because when he speaks people listen. “They trust you,” he said. “You have a way of communicating, they can just see it in your eyes.”