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Healthy choice for surgeon general

Regina Benjamin has an impressive background as a brilliant, committed family doctor who at times sacrificed her own financial well-being to care for some of the poorest working Americans.

July 14, 2009

The news cameras cut away from the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for just a few minutes, but it was enough time for history to be made at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue as well. There, President Obama announced his nomination of another woman from an underrepresented minority who, like Sotomayor, understands grand public policy as an intellectual and as one who has lived it through personal experience.

No one should expect Regina Benjamin, the African American physician and 2008 winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant nominated for surgeon general, to go through a grilling before the Senate. Benjamin has been considered an angel-like figure -- a strong-minded, plain-spoken angel-like figure -- who at times sacrificed her own financial well-being to care for some of the poorest working Americans. The family doctor from a shrimping town in Louisiana rebuilt her clinic after it was felled by hurricanes and fire and helped others across the country bring similar clinics to rural areas. She has been a leader in both the Alabama and national medical associations, but she's also a doctor who drove long distances when sick patients could not get to her and who understands the ravages of smoking, poor diet and other unhealthy behaviors in the most intimate way, having lost members of her immediate family to easily preventable diseases.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 28 Editorial pages Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Regina Benjamin: A Tuesday editorial described the nominee for surgeon general as being from Louisiana. She is from Alabama.

If confirmed, Benjamin will take over a job known almost solely for the ubiquitous 1965 warning, later updated, that "The Surgeon General has determined that cigarettes may be dangerous to your health." The position, which is not responsible for such weighty policy matters as healthcare reform, nonetheless can wield tremendous influence when the person who holds it has a gift for communication and a reputation for passionate, science-based positions on public health. During the Reagan administration, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop advocated comprehensive sex education, produced an important paper on the effects of secondhand smoke and had information on AIDS mailed to every U.S. household.

Benjamin should make the unhealthy fattening of America one of her keynote public health issues. She also can advocate for better primary-care coverage and encourage the brightest students in U.S. medical schools to consider careers in family medicine. Known for her unswerving determination and frank speech, Benjamin has the potential to be one of the strongest voices in public health in decades. Her confirmation should be swift.

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