NEJM Editorial on Murthy for Surgeon General (with some further editorial comments by me)

Our friends at the New England Journal of Medicine have a great editorial chastising Congress and the White House for potentially bowing to the NRA’s pressure not to confirm Vivek Murthy for Surgeon General. The whole thing is worth a read but here are a couple of key paragraphs.

This is the first time that the NRA has flexed its political muscle over the appointment of a surgeon general. The NRA has taken this action even though the surgeon general has no authority over firearm regulation and even though Murthy made it clear in his testimony before the Senate HELP Committee that if he is confirmed, his principal focus will be on the important national problem of obesity prevention, not firearm policy. Still, 10 Senate Democrats are apparently prepared to vote against Murthy’s confirmation because of his personal views on firearms — a demonstration of just how much political power our legislators have ceded to the NRA.

The critical question is this: Should a special-interest organization like the NRA have veto power over the appointment of the nation’s top doctor? The very idea is unacceptable.

Despite the continuing American tragedy of mass shootings — Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech — the NRA has redoubled its efforts to prevent enactment of stricter firearm regulations. Lawmakers who run afoul of the NRA face political retribution. By obstructing the President’s nomination of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general, the NRA is taking its single-issue political blackmail to a new level. With the record of past surgeons general as their guide, senators should do what is right for the health of our country by confronting the NRA and voting their own conscience. Dr. Murthy is an accomplished physician, policymaker, leader, and entrepreneur. He deserves the President’s continued backing and should be confirmed.

I think this is very well said and largely sympathetic. The one point on which I will slightly veer off course (disagree with is too strong) from NEJM has to do with the connection between gun safety and health. I do think it is legitimate to view gun safety and firearm deaths as a HEALTH issue, even if not particularly a HEALTH CARE issue. It is a staple part of public health regulatory studies, along with drugs, alcohol, obesity, and tobacco. While we have the CDC as a kind of public health federal executive power, as its name suggests communicable and non-communicable disease has always been its focus. I think it would be great if we understand the “top doc” of the United States’ role as being about HEALTH and not just HEALTH CARE, so I would not (and to be clear I don’t think NEJM has) draw too strong a line between these two in an attempt to salvage this nomination. Doctors (not exclusively of other actors in the system, of course) should view themselves as agents of HEALTH not just HEALTH CARE, and I would hate for Murthy or other doctors’ efforts in the broader sphere to be dismissed as “frolicks” or “extracurricular.”

 

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