Vivek Murthy: A surgeon general nominee hijacked by special interests

His is the story of which American dreams are made: a first-generation immigrant who grew up in South Florida, where he worked on weekends to support his father’s small business. After winning a spot at Harvard at 16, he set his sights on medicine and leadership. He founded an international non-profit focused on HIV/AIDS youth education while at Yale for medical school — and threw on an MBA for good measure before heading back to Boston for residency training at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Since then, he’s practiced medicine while working as a serial entrepreneur, starting both private and non-profit organizations in medical research and health advocacy. He wields a blinding smile and a voice that immediately commands a room.

He’s even been to the White House — and he took his mom with him.

In another time and place, a nominee like Dr. Vivek Murthy, with a narrative so akin to conservative politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, would sail through Senate confirmation as the nation’s surgeon general.

But in our time and place, special interest groups have hijacked Dr. Murthy’s nomination, as they have the entirety of the American political process. As physicians and students of public service, we are aghast.

Under the guise that his mere mention of “gun control” following the Newtown tragedy is akin to repudiation of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association has signaled its intense opposition to Dr. Murthy’s nomination. The NRA now promises to “score” a confirmation vote for Murthy as the basis of electoral support in the 2014 midterms – a prospect that has multiple senators wavering in their support. White House rumors suggest that a Senate vote on Dr. Murthy’s nomination will be delayed until after the midterms, in order to protect those candidates who hold the key to a Democratic Senate majority.

As physicians, we are appalled that a candidate of such high caliber – with impeccable credentials, a well-earned reputation as a “doctor’s doctor” and formidable experience in management and leadership – could be derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America’s health professionals. (Never mind the fact that Dr. Murthy’s position on gun violence is no different from that of the American Medical Association, or that he explicitly confirmed that obesity, tobacco and mental health — and not gun control — would be his priorities as surgeon general).

As Americans, however, we strongly believe that the NRA’s entry into this debate – and its immediate support by Senator Rand Paul and others – cannot be taken lightly.

Will every qualified public health leader be held to a new standard: that a mere mention of the word “gun” is a disqualifier from public service? This new style of McCarthyism comes at a time when the United States leads the world in gun deaths and 15 months after the tragedy at Newtown. After all, even C. Everett Koop, the legendary surgeon general nominated by Ronald Reagan, described gun violence as a public health emergency.

But in our America, facts such as these have little impact in the national debate. The NRA’s influence — and that of countless special interest groups like it — cannot be ignored.

In our America, sterling qualifications, vast experience and the support of the broad medical and public health community, however, seemingly can.

Ali Khan and Christopher Lillis  are internal medicine physicians.  Sanjay Kishore is medical student. This post originally appeared in WBUR’s CommonHealth.

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