This post was developed collaboratively by the Section’s Communications Committee.
The capital and the news media are in a collective tizzy over the abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey. Cable news chatter is reaching a fever pitch as talking heads make frequent references to Nixon’s Watergate, though we cannot yet know for sure whether Trump’s house of cards will fall the same way (or, frankly, why on earth he thought this was a good idea).
There is no shortage of rolling heads, and plenty of screaming headlines have rolled with them. While each decapitation dismissal is significant for its own reasons, one that has unfortunately not received as much attention was the firing of US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the end of April. Quiet chatter about the sacking has percolated through the domestic public health community, accompanied by a prickly letter from Senate Democrats last week demanding to know why Murthy was axed “[e]specially in light of your Administration’s pattern of politically motivated and ethically questionable personnel decisions.”
As this piece from Vox points out, the reasons why are pretty obvious:
Murthy…holds views on gun control that are at odds with those of the new administration. When President Obama nominated Murthy back in November 2013, the Senate blocked his nomination for more than a year, particularly after the National Rifle Association criticized a letter Murthy had co-signed in support of gun control measures.
Murthy was also a strong supporter of Obamacare. He co-founded Doctors for America in May 2009 — around the time the fight about the Affordable Care Act was heating 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,” Sarah Kliff reported.
Most recently, Murthy’s office came out with a report that included clear, evidence-based suggestions about what steps need to be taken to combat the opioid epidemic — but Murthy wasn’t tapped to join President Trump’s recently announced opioid commission.
The implications for public health in the US are pretty obvious. However, this matters on the global health front as well – and not simply because the US is part of the global health picture. In addition to being “America’s doctor,” the surgeon general is in fact a kind of “general” of sorts (technically a vice admiral, equivalent to a lieutenant general). She or he leads the PHS Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service that deploys in public health emergencies, including global ones. PHS officers have deployed in response to humanitarian crises and global health pandemic responses including 2009 influenza pandemic, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the west Africa Ebola outbreak.
Past surgeons general have been vocal about the importance of global health. Perhaps more importantly, they also have a distinguished history of being a thorn in the side of the US presidents under which they serve by speaking truth to power on controversial public health issues. One of the most famous examples is C. Everett Koop’s educational brochure on AIDS that he mailed to every household in America in 1988, flying in the face of Reagan’s refusal to publicly reference anything related to the virus or its devastating epidemic. Considering that the position itself has relatively little authority, this kind of thought leadership that champions evidence-based approaches to public health problems, even when they are politically uncomfortable, is all the more important in a world that often looks to the US to set the standards for both science and practice in public health.
Of course, the next surgeon general’s ability to do that is limited under an administration led by a president who still acts like he’s the star of The Apprentice.
Since the election, there has been much (and very much justified) hand-wringing over clear global health setbacks, including looming budget cuts, the Global Gag Rule (and the future of reproductive rights in general), and the potential for ramped up defense spending to drive even more devastation to health through conflict. Doctors take an oath to always do what’s best for their patients. As public health professionals, we have a parallel responsibility to carry out our mission to benefit all people. Dr. Murthy’s legacy of fighting for every life – through his stances on gun control and affordable health care – are an example of this duty exercised faithfully. His final thoughts as surgeon general are striking:
We will only be successful in addressing addiction – and other illnesses – when we recognize the humanity within each of us. People are more than their disease. All of us are more than our worst mistakes. We must ensure our nation always reflects a fundamental value: every life matters.
While there is plenty to ring the alarm about outside the border, it is critical that those of us in global health also lend our voices to our public health allies whose work is focused stateside. We cannot afford to sit out US domestic public health issues, because they inevitably impact the whole world.