Surgeon General Regina Benjamin speaks on health disparities in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 5, 2012.
After four years on the job, the nation's top doctor is leaving. U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin announced late Wednesay that she plans to step down next month.
"Regina has served as America's doctor since 2009 and has impacted the health and lives of Americans across the country. I am deeply grateful for her leadership and service," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in an email to staff, according to CNN. "The Surgeon General's road to prevention has touched the lives of millions of Americans and has had a positive impact on the health of this Nation."
Benjamin, the 18th U.S. surgeon general, focused on preventive care, as she stated in this tweet:
CNN says she elaborated in a staff memo: "My goal was to create a grassroots movement, to change our health care system from one focused on sickness and disease to a system focused on wellness and prevention. With your help, that movement has begun."
Talking to WKRG-TV in Mobile, Ala., which is her hometown, Benjamin didn't list many future plans: "The thing I'm gonna do right now is take a couple of weeks and rest and enjoy the summer a little bit and come home for Fourth of July and then kind of look at whatever challenges are out there and really make a difference."
She does plan to return to the clinic she founded in Bayou La Batre, just south of Mobile, to work with some of her old patients. Benjamin was profiled in 1995 by the New York Times as an "Angel in a White Coat":
"When they cannot pay — which is often — she tells them to pay when they can, what little they can. With envelopes containing single $5 bills, they come by her office: whites, blacks, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, people who would be turned away by doctors who put proof of insurance ahead of healing.
"At a time when the nation's health care industry is becoming dominated by huge insurance companies, for-profit hospital corporations and massive health maintenance organizations, Dr. Benjamin, 38, is a throwback long thought to be extinct: a country doctor with a heart. She serves an isolated pocket of Alabama that is desperate for doctors, where only people who drag a living from the Gulf — and a few lost travelers — ever go."
There's some speculation Benjamin could consider running for national office. The Birmingham News says local Democrats have mused whether she might try for the U.S. House seat of retiring GOP Rep. Jo Bonner, but Benjamin so far hasn't commented publicly.
According to her official bio, Benjamin holds a medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, an MBA from Tulane University and 18 honorary degrees. She's served on numerous medical boards and commissions, and has been showered with accolades, including the MacArthur Genius Award Fellowship in 2008.
The deputy surgeon general, Rear Adm. Boris D. Lushniak, will step in as acting surgeon general during the search for Benjamin's replacement, according to Health and Human Services spokeswoman Dori Salcido.