WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Monday that he would nominate Dr. Regina M. Benjamin -- a family physician who founded a health clinic in a small, shrimp-farming town in Alabama -- to be the nation's surgeon general.
Benjamin in 1995 became the first black woman and the youngest doctor elected to the board of the American Medical Assn. Last year she received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for treating patients in the Gulf Coast region regardless of their ability to pay.
Benjamin, 52, founded a rural clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a town of about 2,500. Many of the residents lack health insurance, and about a third are immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Alphonsine Lyons, director of medical operations at Mostellar Medical Center in Alabama, said that many of the patients, unable to pay for their treatment, like to show their appreciation by bringing the doctors "delicious lunches" -- cakes, smoked fish and shrimp.
Since starting the clinic in 1990, Benjamin has worked to rebuild it three times: in 1998, after it was devastated by Hurricane Georges; in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina; and after an early-morning fire in January 2006.
During the rebuilding, Benjamin made house calls to patients in her pickup truck, according to news accounts. She mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild the clinic the second time, Obama said in introducing her at a Rose Garden ceremony.
Obama praised Benjamin for opening the Alabama clinic, "even though she could have left the state to make more money as a specialist or a doctor in a wealthier community."
The president, who is working with Democratic leaders in Congress on a major overhaul of U.S. healthcare, said Benjamin "has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our healthcare system" -- such as patients who lack insurance, costly diseases that could have been prevented and the shortage of primary care physicians in rural areas.
Benjamin called the nomination "a physician's dream" and said: "I want to ensure that no one, no one, falls through the cracks as we improve our healthcare system."
Benjamin holds a master's in business administration in addition to a medical degree.
In a 2006 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she said she had "wanted to figure out how to provide cost-effective medical care to people who can't afford treatment financed by insurance or the government."
If confirmed by the Senate for the four-year term, Benjamin will be America's leading spokeswoman on issues of public health.
Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health, called the surgeon general's role "the bully pulpit from which one senior informed voice can articulate healthcare issues for this country."
Rosenstock praised Obama's selection, noting that Benjamin has worked "in the trenches," gaining firsthand experience with patients from diverse backgrounds.
"She understands well the value of prevention, which is going to be the cornerstone of any healthcare reform, if it's going to make sense," said Rosenstock, who contributed money to rebuilding the Alabama clinic after it was destroyed the first time.