Obama Picks Regina Benjamin As Surgeon General

President Obama has tapped a rural family physician to be the nation's top doctor. At a Rose Garden ceremony Monday, Obama nominated Alabama doctor Regina Benjamin to be the U.S. surgeon general. Benjamin runs a nonprofit health clinic on the Gulf Coast.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. President Obama has tapped for the nation's top doctor a rural family physician. At a Rose Garden ceremony yesterday, Mr. Obama nominated Dr. Regina Benjamin to be the U.S. surgeon general.

President BARACK OBAMA: For nearly two decades Dr. Regina Benjamin has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Benjamin runs a non-profit health clinic on the Alabama Gulf Coast. And that's where NPR's Debbie Elliott begins this profile.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: �Bayou La Batre, Alabama gets its name from the finger of water that connects the tiny fishing village to its livelihood, the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Regina Benjamin is as much a fixture here as the shrimp trawlers made famous in the movie "Forrest Gump." Her clinic is a squat gray brick building right next door to Bayou La Batre city hall, where everyone was all smiles after President Obama's announcement, especially Mayor Stan Wright.

Mayor STAN WRIGHT (Bayou La Batre, Alabama): I'm proud to be her friend. I'm proud to serve on her board of directors. And I'm proud to be the mayor of the community that she served.

ELLIOTT: He's also her patient. And Dr. Benjamin would no doubt not approve of the wad of tobacco stuffed in his cheek. Benjamin has worked for more than 20 years to promote healthier lifestyles in this hardscrabble town of about 2,500. Her patients are mostly those who fall between the cracks of Medicaid and private insurance. And Mayor Wright says she's cleared many a hurdle along the way, most recently Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed her clinic and devastated the bayou.

Mayor WRIGHT: When the water was knee deep high, she was knee deep in water. She was worried about her patients. She got in that old Toyota four-wheel drive truck. She went door to door. She wouldn't sleep until everybody was taken care of.

ELLIOTT: It was the second time in less than 10 years that hurricane flood waters washed away her clinic. And then a year after Katrina, her rebuilt clinic burned down. Despite the hardships, no one in Bayou La Batre was denied health care. Not the out-of-work seafood processors or the Southeast Asian immigrants who had lost their boats in the storm. Mayor Wright says that's what Regina Benjamin will see to as surgeon general.

Mayor WRIGHT: She'll do whatever she's got to do to make sure everybody's taken care of. And that's the way she does here. You got treated if you had money or not. There's been people in the past would bring her a pint of oysters or two fish for their payment. She was tickled to death with it.

ELLIOTT: For years, Benjamin would moonlight in emergency rooms and nursing homes just to keep the clinic afloat. At the White House yesterday she called being nominated surgeon general a physician's dream and indicated she would use that bully pulpit to call for reform.

Dr. REGINA BENJAMIN (Surgeon General Nominee): It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients. It shouldn't be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country.

ELLIOTT: A national voice for rural health care, Benjamin became the youngest and first African-American woman elected to the board of the American Medical Association and was also the first black woman to head a state medical society.

Alabama Health Officer Don Williamson says Regina Benjamin brings an important perspective to the health care debate.

Dr. DON WILLIAMSON (State Health Officer): The realization that it's not going to be enough simply to give people insurance cards, that we have to have providers to deliver those services, and that in much of rural America there simply aren't enough providers.

ELLIOTT: In 1995, Dr. Benjamin told NPR about the rewards of rural medicine.

Dr. BENJAMIN: I feel like I'm making a difference and the people I see appreciate my being here. You know, I really get involved with their lives on a day-to-day basis. And that makes it worthwhile. And that's what I went to medical school for.

ELLIOTT: Benjamin says if she's confirmed as surgeon general, her hope is to be America's family physician.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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Obama Picks Rural Ala. Doctor For Surgeon General

President Obama on Monday nominated Alabama family practice physician Regina Benjamin — known for her efforts to rebuild a nonprofit medical clinic destroyed by hurricanes and fire — to serve as the surgeon general.

At an appearance before reporters in the Rose Garden, Obama praised Benjamin's dedication to serving impoverished Gulf Coast residents in the fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Ala., saying she opted to open a nonprofit clinic on the Gulf Coast rather than moving to an area where she could make more money.

"If there's anyone who understands the urgency of meeting this (health care reform) challenge in a personal and powerful way, it's the woman who will become our nation's next surgeon general," Obama said.

Benjamin said she was honored by the prospect of becoming the nation's chief health advocate and has a personal stake in improving the health care system.

Benjamin's closest family members died of preventable diseases — her father died of diabetes and hypertension; a brother died of HIV-related illness and her mother, a smoker, died of lung cancer.

Benjamin said her uncle is on oxygen therapy for breathing problems caused by years of smoking.

As surgeon general, Benjamin said she aims to focus on wellness and prevention plans to keep other families from losing loved ones to preventable illnesses.

"My hope is to be America's doctor, America's family physician," she said. "I want to ensure that no one, no one, falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system."

Born in 1956, Benjamin received her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and completed her residency in family medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia. She later earned a master's degree in business administration from Tulane University.

She said she returned to Alabama after completing her residency to fulfill her commitment to the National Health Service Corps, a program that provides medical education assistance in exchange for community service. She decided to stay because she recognized he intense need.

As a small-town doctor, Benjamin moonlighted in emergency rooms and nursing homes until she could convert her office into a rural health clinic, according to her Web site. She founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990, serving community of 2,500, including a large number of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

The clinic provides physical exams, routine medical care, preventive care, lab work and minor surgeries regardless of whether patients have medical insurance or the money to pay for their care.

When the clinic was wiped out by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Benjamin treated her patients in their homes and mortgaged her house to rebuild, the president said.

The clinic was destroyed a third time by a fire, leaving Benjamin and the community to dedicate themselves to rebuilding again with donations.

"Through floods and fires and severe wont, Regina Benjamin has refused to give up," Obama said.

Benjamin's work has been recognized often. She was elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees in 1995, making her the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected. In 1998, she received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. She is also a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

In addition to her work on the Gulf Coast, Benjamin has done missionary work in Honduras and serves as a board member for the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights, the clinic Web site states.

If she is confirmed, Benjamin would direct the operations of the 6,000-member U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a team of health professionals that promotes public health and disease prevention programs.

She also would serve as the country's top educator on health matters ranging from childhood obesity to eliminating health disparities. The office is under the Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseen by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Obama also said the Congress is inching toward passing a health care package that would enable more Americans to access health care and cut the rising costs of premiums. He said he expects Benjamin to be an asset in working putting the administration's health care initiatives into place.

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