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Surgeon General Nominee Will Face Questions

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Surgeon General Nominee Will Face Questions

Health Care

Surgeon General Nominee Will Face Questions

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

A Senate committee this morning will consider President Bush's nomination for the next surgeon general, but there are questions about the job as well as the candidate.

NPR's Joanne Silberner has this report on the prospects for Dr. James Holsinger.

JOANNE SILBERNER: The stage for today's hearing was set earlier this week. The most recent surgeon general, Richard Carmona, testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the Bush administration kept him from issuing reports and giving speeches on topics he thought crucial, such as the value of condoms in avoiding unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. RICHARD CARMONA (Surgeon General, United States Department of Health and Human Services): However, there was already a policy in place that did not want to hear the science, but wanted to just, if you will, quote-unquote, "preach" abstinence, which I felt was scientifically incorrect.

SILBERNER: Former Surgeons General C. Everett Koop and David Satcher also testified that they had to fight the administrations that appointed them. Holsinger himself hasn't talked publicly since his nomination was announced. That's traditional. He has indicated that his big issue would be a relatively non-political one - childhood obesity. Friends and coworkers of Holsinger say he's a quiet man. Fitzhugh Mullen, a former assistant surgeon general, says it's not whether Holsinger is quiet but whether he has fortitude that counts.

Mr. FITZHUGH MULLEN (Former Assistant Surgeon General, United States Department of Health and Human Services): His sense of fiber and ability to stick to principles of science and public health are the key questions.

SILBERNER: Holsinger once headed Kentucky's Health Department, and at the federal level was medical director of the Veterans Health Administration. He also held a variety of jobs at the University of Kentucky, including chancellor.

Stephen Wyatt is head of the school of public health, which Holsinger helped found. He says Holsinger will stick to his guns.

Mr. STEPHEN WYATT (Dean, University of Kentucky College of Public Health): If he were not allowed to do that, I believe he would be someone who would stand up and say this job is not for me.

SILBERNER: Wyatt points to something Holsinger did as head of Kentucky's Health Department. He successfully fought off naysayers to find funding for educational programs for poor people with chronic diseases.

At the hearing today, senators are likely to grill Holsinger about what public health measures he'd push as surgeon general. They are also going to want to know about something he wrote in 1991 for the United Methodist Church. It was a paper on the medical aspects of homosexuality, in which he said that in sex between men, injury and diseases are especially prevalent. And he described such sex as biologically unnatural. Several national gay groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, are opposing Holsinger's nomination. Joe Solmonese is president of the group.

Mr. JOE SOLMONESE(President, Human Rights Campaign): Whether or not he believed it - you know, as I believe he has said, he simply put this information together and passed it on - it seems incredibly irresponsible for someone who is allegedly a health care professional to simply put this information and pass it on without it either being his views, or if they weren't his views, in some way suggesting that they weren't his views.

SILBERNER: But Maria Kemplin says concerns that Holsinger is anti-gay are unfounded. She worked as a project manager in Holsinger's office when he was chancellor of the University of Kentucky. She's also lesbian. While she was working for Holsinger, two state legislators pressured the university to drop a conference on gay and lesbian health.

Ms. MARIA KEMPLIN (Former Project Manager, University of Kentucky College of Public Health): And Dr. Holsinger just would not let that happen. He was adamant that it was a matter of public health and it was an important issue, and we had the session.

SILBERNER: Still, concerns remain. The American Public Health Association has come out against his nomination, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America is questioning his commitment to science over ideology. If the committee approves Holsinger's nomination, it still has to go on to the full Senate for confirmation.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

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