Vivek Murthy and the ghosts of surgeon generals past

Brigham and Women’s Dr. Vivek Murthy finally becomes the US Surgeon General (if only due to procedural quirk in the often quirky Senate where old-timers like Harry Reid can get the better of young pups like Ted Cruz).

The Brookline resident’s nomination had been held up by senators annoyed that a doctor had labeled gun violence a public health problem. Critics pointed to his 2012 tweet that critiqued politicians’ habit of genuflecting to the NRA.

 

Those views are scarcely surprising coming from a doctor in a major US city where the medical professionals who treat gunshot victims are often as battle-tested as their military counterparts. But his comments almost derailed his nomination.

Murthy has said that he intends to concentrate on issues such as childhood obesity. But with First Lady Michelle Obama well out in front on the issue, Murthy could find himself outmatched in the bully pulpit.

The Washington Post asks, “Can the surgeon general role still be powerful? The answer could be only if they are willing to speak truth to power.”

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s during his own confirmation quest, C. Everett Koop realized the US had a major health problem that was unfolding.

In a 1986 report on the disease that he prepared at President Ronald Reagan‘s request, he called for sex education beginning in elementary school and urged the use of condoms. He also maneuvered to have an AIDS education pamphlet distributed to millions of American households.   

For his groundbreaking work, the evangelical Christian, who personally opposed abortion, homosexuality, and sex before marriage, earned the everlasting opprobrium of conservatives.

However, Koop recognized that politics stood in the way of a national health emergency. “Our first public health priority, to stop the further transmission of the AIDS virus, became needlessly mired in the homosexual politics of the early 1980s,” he said in his personal account of the AIDS crisis.

Joycelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s first surgeon general also spoke out about sex and AIDS. She advocated teaching masturbation as a way to slow down the spread of the disease. For her frankness, Clinton showed her the door. In her post-Beltway career, she advocated legalizing marijuana long before most states began pursuing decriminalization and legalization.

Richard Carmona, who served as surgeon general during the Bush administration told a congressional committee in 2007 that sex education, emergency contraception, and mental health were just a few of the issues he was told to keep quiet about.

The bully pulpit is where the most effective surgeon generals have made their mark. Murthy managed to survive the endurance test of a Senate confirmation battle. The real test will be whether he is willing speak out on public health and gun violence after the next high-profile incident involving firearms.

GABRIELLE GURLEY

BEACON HILL

The Mass. Taxpayers Foundation says the state deficit is twice as large as the Patrick administration has acknowledged and could approach $750 million. In a bit of awkward timing, Gov. Patrick takes a victory lap on his stewardship of the economy in this Shirley Leung column.

The budget, pot, and opioids top Gov.-elect Charlie Baker’s first priorities, State House News reports.

Gov. Deval Patrick announces a $1 million grant to develop a faster Ebola test, the Associated Press reports.

An outside monitoring group will observe practices for the next two years at Bridgewater State Hospital as part of an agreement that heads of a lawsuit against the Patrick administration over improper isolation and use of restraints on patients with mental illness.

A Globe editorial says Jonathan Gruber is bad at PR and politics but is a smart health care economist who is valuable voice on the state Health Connector board.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan was recalled in a landslide vote and Bristol District Attorney Sam Sutter topped the field of eight candidates to replace him.

The Worcester City Council wants more control over nonprofits, who owned 20 percent of the city’s property seven years ago and now own 30 percent. Councilors said they want the same zoning control that Cambridge and Boston have, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

OLYMPICS

In an entirely anticipated development, the US Olympic Committee votes unanimously to pursue a US bid for the 2024 Summer Games, and says it will announce next month the US city that will be the country’s entry. Vying to be the US site are Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. The Globe and San Francisco Chronicle splash the news across their front pages, while it doesn’t get a mention on the front of the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post.

Some Boston area unions are reacting cooly to the Olympics idea.

ELECTIONS

US Rep. John Tierney gives a rare interview as he prepares to leave office to make way for Seth Moulton, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds Americans deeply split over Hillary Clinton‘s prospective presidential run. Notably, less than two in five Democrats in the poll say they would back an Elizabeth Warren candidacy.

Does Jeb Bush have a Mitt Romney problem or does Romney have a Jeb Bush problem? The Journal asks, what kind of Republican is Jeb Bush? The Journal‘s editorial page wonders aloud whether Bush really wants to fight for the presidency.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Five workers were fired at a fish processing plant in New Bedford when they began a brief protest and work stoppage while demanding an increase in their wages from $8 an hour to $12 to $15 an hour.

EDUCATION

Cut that meat: Outgoing state Education Secretary Matthew Malone says his next career stop is learning to be a butcher, as he plans on taking an unpaid internship at Tony’s Market in Roslindale.

HEALTH CARE

Heroin overdoses are surging across the state, with 58 suspected deaths already this month, say the State Police.

Steward Health Care promises to maintain an emergency room at the soon-to-be shuttered Quincy Medical Center, but Paul Levy thinks it won’t last long disconnected from an operating hospital. The Veterans Administration says it is looking for a new site on the South Shore to house a veterans’ clinic that is being displaced by Quincy’s closing.

The Lawrence Board of Health votes to raise the legal age for purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

TRANSPORTATION

Iowa explores a drivers license app, a digital version of the card in your wallet, Governing reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The green energy industries gain political clout at state houses across the country, Governing reports.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Fourteen officials from a Framingham compounding pharmacy linked to a fungal meningitis outbreak that killed 64 people are arrested, the Telegram & Gazette reports.

Greater Boston looks at the next step in the case of convicted murderer Michelle (nee Robert) Kosilek, who is seeking a sex change operation, after a federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling ordering the state to pick up the tab for the surgery.

A Blackstone woman whose house found to contain the remains of two infants and one fetus has been indicted on two murder charges.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

MEDIA

Thank God Boston’s a two-newspaper town: The Herald’s James Verniere revels in the third installment of the Hobbit trilogy, the last of Peter Jackson’s movies from Middle Earth, while the Globe’s Ty Burr says “the problems of a Hobbit, a wizard, and 13 dwarves don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”