clock menu more-arrow no yes

Vivek Murthy is the new surgeon general. Who is he, and what the heck is his job?

The Senate has confirmed Vivek Murthy as United States Surgeon General, overcoming fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association that has blocked the doctor's nomination since February.

Obama nominated Murthy, co-founder of the pro-Obamacare group Doctors for America, in November 2013. At 37, he will be the country's youngest surgeon general, and the first of Indian-American descent. The NRA, however, has long opposed Murthy's nomination.

The reason? Adrianna McIntyre explains:

Murthy was one of the authors of a letter saying that "strong measures to reduce gun violence must be taken immediately." So despite a bipartisan recommendation from the Senate HELP committee in February, the NRA promised to "score" any vote on Murthy confirmation, meaning an affirmative vote would pull down a senator's annual rating from the group.

Here's what you need to know about Murthy, the fight over his nomination, and, perhaps much more basically, what a surgeon general does all day.

1. Who is Vivek Murthy?

Murthy is a 36-year-old hospitalist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. His most notable accomplishment is arguably co-founding Doctors for America in May 2009, just as the fight over the Affordable Care Act was gearing up. The country's main doctor trade group, the American Medical Association, remained neutral on the Affordable Care Act. In founding Doctors for America, Murthy says he saw an opportunity to organize the doctors who very much did support Obamacare. This is what he told Hospitalist News in 2012:

I was struck by how few physicians were organizing and gathering their ideas to actually make an impact on the candidates’ platforms and, ultimately, on a health reform bill. A few colleagues and I began Doctors for America with a simple belief that physicians should play a leadership role in designing and running our nation’s health care system. That started with enabling physicians to shape and inform what would become the next major health reform law.

Murthy now splits his time between practicing as a physician and other endeavors. He is the founder of TrialNetworks, a technology company launched in 2007 to help large pharmaceutical companies better manage the drug testing process. And as if Murthy hasn't launched enough things, he also started Visions Worldwide, a non-profit dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS in India.

2. Why has Murthy's nomination been held up so long?

nra Mark Wilson/Getty Images

(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

President Obama nominated Murthy to the surgeon general post last November. The main hold up has been a letter Murthy signed onto, from Doctors for America, that called for "significant changes in policy" to reduce gun deaths in half by 2020. The letter calls for more background checks, assault weapons bans, and other policies that the National Rifle Association opposes.

When the possibility of a vote on Murthy's confirmation came up in March, the New York Times reported that the NRA "sent a 'grass-roots alert' to millions of email subscribers, imploring them to 'contact your senators and ask them to oppose confirmation of President Obama’s radically antigun nominee.'"

Several editors at the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine penned an editorial in defense of the Murthy in May. "Ten 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," they write. "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."

3. What does the surgeon general do all day?

In his or her day-to-day work, the surgeon general is neither a practicing surgeon nor a general, which does make the title a bit confusing.

The surgeon general is, technically speaking, the nation's top spokesperson on public health issues, things like smoking and obesity and exercise. Murthy's predecessors have used the perch to draw attention to pressing public health issues that arguably need more national resources. It was the surgeon general's report on the harms of nicotine in 1960, for example, that catalyzed a movement for warning labels on cigarettes and tobacco taxes that are commonplace today.

c. everett Koop

C. Everett Koop served as Reagan's surgeon general and was an outspoken AIDS advocate. (Ron Galella via Getty News Images)

Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, was a vocal opponent of smoking who continued the fight started in the 1960s into the next decade. Koop was arguably the best-known surgeon general, partially because of the work he did to bring more attention to the then-emerging AIDS epidemic. He authored a 7-page brochure titled "Understanding AIDS" and somehow managed to mail it to 107 million households across the country. According to Slate, this was the largest-ever public health mailing.

Murthy, for his part, testified before the Senate that he would likely focus on the obesity crisis as one of his key agenda items if confirmed.

4. What does Murthy keep in his fridge?

That's almost certainly not a question you actually had, but this Boston Globe profile will tell you:

Dr. Vivek Murthy’s refrigerator in his Brookline apartment, one close friend says, reveals a lot about his priorities outside his busy professional life as a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician, start-up entrepreneur, and political activist.

The shelves, when they’re not empty, contain foods like unflavored almond milk, raw carrots, and high-protein grains, reflecting a healthy lifestyle that includes the daily practice of yoga. Hanging on the outside of the refrigerator are a wide assortment of photos of those dear to Murthy, as well as wedding and birth announcements of close friends and family.

You can read the full profile here, which is one of the more comprehensive pieces on Murthy.

5. What makes now a better time for this vote? Did the NRA back off?

Definitely not. An NRA spokesperson told Talking Points Memo earlier today that "America's next surgeon general should not be a political operative whose professional inexperience has been a source of bipartisan concern."

It's more about the midterm elections. A handful of Democratic senators from red states who feared battling with the NRA, and who blocked a Murthy vote on the first go-around, lost their elections. As Bloomberg's Dave Weigel explains, there's just not that much for them to fear at this point. They're out of office anyway — and, on their way out, could usher a new surgeon general into office with few political ramifications.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.