Indian-origin physician confirmed by a 57-43 vote with 7 Republican senators joining all 50 Democrats to support President Joe Biden’s nominee
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, March 23, 2021 – The Senate confirmed Indian-American physician Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy as America’s top doctor in a bipartisan vote Tuesday evening.
Murthy was confirmed by a 57-43 vote and will serve as the 21st Surgeon General of the United States and Medical Director in the Regular Corps of the Public Health Service. It is the second stint for him in a role he held during the Obama era, between 2014 and 2017, before he was ousted by the Trump administration.
This time around, seven Republican senators – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Roger Marshal of Kansas, Rob Portman of Ohio and Dan Sullivan of Alaska – joined all 50 Democrats in voting to confirm President Joe Biden’s pick for the nation’s doctor. It was more than the 51 votes he garnered last time.
“Vivek Murthy is a highly experienced, crisis-tested leader and an excellent choice to return as Surgeon General”, said senator Patty Murray (Democrat-Washington) who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) which voted 16-6 last week to advance his nomination to the Senate floor for an approval vote. “Glad he was confirmed today”, she said. “I’m looking forward to working with him to address this pandemic and the underlying health inequities it has made way worse”.
Senator Jacky Rosen (Democrat-Nevada) noted, “Dr. Murthy has the deep experience and knowledge we desperately need in the Surgeon General’s office as we continue working to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Testifying before the Senate committee last month, Murthy emphasized his first and foremost priority is to end the coronavirus pandemic.
With some 29.9 million cases, the US leads the world in both infections and deaths according to data from John Hopkins University. More than 543,000 Americans have died from the deadly disease, a figure that was unimaginable a year ago.
“This is a moment of tremendous suffering for our nation”, Murthy noted at the hearing convened by the HELP Committee. His testimony was tempered by a sense of personal loss. The pandemic has taken the lives of seven of his own family members in the US and India.
“More than half a million people have lost their lives to Covid-19, including beloved members of my own family”, he told the senate panel. “Many more are facing long-term health consequences and stressful financial struggles. If confirmed as Surgeon General, my highest priority will be to help end this pandemic”.
Ahead of the crucial hearing, Murthy tweeted, “As I take the stand this morning, I want to dedicate my confirmation hearing to my Uncle Raman who recently passed away from COVID-19. I am thinking of him and all of my family, friends and mentors who have supported me over the years. Today, is their day, too”.
Later, responding to a question by a senator on the urgency of ending the pandemic, he replied, “I lost my uncle who resided in Dallas recently due to the pandemic. My children are into remote learning and they crave to get back to their school. There are many families who are struggling more than us and I want to make sure that I help people in this struggle”. The surgeon general nominee emphasized, “That is what brought me back to public service”.
Murthy was chosen to lead the new coronavirus task force during the presidential transition. The announcement was made soon after Biden and his vice president pick Kamala Devi Harris delivered their victory speeches in Delaware, in November, signifying the immense importance the new administration places on containing and combating the deadly disease. Murthy who had been advising Biden and Harris about the pandemic throughout the presidential election year co-chaired the Transition Covid-19 Advisory Board constituting a diverse and experienced group of doctors and scientists.
At his confirmation hearing, the Indian-origin physician underscored the importance of following global guidelines including wearing masks. Responding to a query on vaccine hesitancy, he asserted, “The quicker we are in vaccinating people, the faster we can return back to the normal where we can once again meet each other”.
Murthy shared space with Dr. Rachel Levine who is President Biden’s pick for Assistant Secretary in Health and Human Services (HHS) and, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first openly transgender federal official.
Murray told the panel, “We all know this pandemic is not going to be stopped by partisan politics. It’s going to be stopped by swift action and by public health experts like Dr. Murthy and Dr. Levine” and “the Biden administration needs all hands on deck as soon as possible”.
Following the event, Senator Maggie Hassan tweeted, “Too many Americans have lost their loved ones to this virus. I know Dr. Vivek Murthy’s first priority if confirmed as Surgeon General is to help our nation heal. From today’s hearing, it’s clear that he’s the right person for this job”.
Republican senators expressed skepticism of his ability to separate policy actions from his political stance.
“I worry about your ability to separate political influence from your ability to communicate healthcare decisions”, said ranking member Richard Burr referring to Murthy’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention. The GOP senator from North Carolina wanted to know whether he would be able to communicate effectively about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines to Americans who disagree with his policies and political views.
Murthy replied, “I was taught in medical school that it doesn’t matter what someone’s background is. It doesn’t matter what their race and ethnicity is. It doesn’t matter certainly what their political affiliation is. Each person is a human life that has unique value and we have to treat them with dignity and respect”.
Earlier, in opening remarks, he vowed that if confirmed as Surgeon General, he would “serve every single American” and see “beyond labels”.
“I learned as a doctor to approach each patient with both head and heart, with science and compassion recognizing that both have the power to heal”, he said. “I learned to respect the uniqueness of each patient recognizing that solutions must be tailored to each individual and I learned to listen deeply to the patient in front of me, to look beyond any labels, and to see that person in their fullest humanity knowing that they were someone’s mother, father, grandparent, child, sibling and friend. The most important job of a doctor is to help patients heal and if confirmed that will be my mission as surgeon general. To do whatever I can for as long as I can to help our communities and our nation heal”.
Republican lawmakers were also troubled by the possibility that Murthy could seek to promote tighter gun control measures.
When he was chosen by Obama to be in charge of the nation’s health, his nomination was stalled in the senate for over a year by Republicans and some Democrats, primarily because he supports sensible gun control.
At the hearing last month, Senator Mike Braun of Indiana asked Murthy whether he believes “guns present a public health emergency”.
While admitting, “gun violence is a concern to me as a doctor”, the Surgeon General nominee said the way to approach the issue “should be driven by science” and there is a continued need to invest in research.
He reassured Braun that his primary focus during his second tenure would not be on guns or gun violence. “If I’m confirmed, it will be on Covid, on mental health, and on substance use disorders. These are the issues which I think are front and center”, he said.
When his nomination was announced in December last year, Murthy noted, “Covid-19 is not the only health crisis we face”, and he proceeded to cite addiction, the opioid crisis and spiraling mental health concerns, glaring racial disparities, high rates of diabetes and heart disease, as compelling issues.
“These challenges are both caused and exacerbated by broader societal issues – from the economic strains families face to the disconnection and loneliness many of us feel”, he said. Regarding effective mitigation measures, he spoke of schools, workplaces and communities as being forces for strengthening health and well being.
“The best policies – and the best vaccines and treatments – will not heal our nation unless we overcome the fear, anxiety, anger and distrust so many Americans are feeling right now”, Murthy said. “So, more than anything, I will come to this role as a doctor – one who learned the most important lessons about medicine not in medical school, but in the clinic my parents (father H.N. Lakshminarasimha Murthy and mother Maithreya Murthy) opened when they first came to America as immigrants decades ago. As a child, I saw how they took the time not just to diagnose illnesses, but to ask about their patients’ families and lives, happily poring over photos of children and grandchildren taken from wallets, listening deeply to people’s stories and struggles, often running well over the appointment time”.
“They taught me that the best doctor is not an authority figure who writes prescriptions, but rather a partner in healing – someone who sees patients in their fullest humanity and empowers them to take control of their health. That is the kind of doctor I have always tried to be”.
“And if confirmed, that is the approach I will take as I serve as America’s doctor.
I will dedicate myself to caring for every American, driven always by science and facts, by head and heart – and endlessly grateful to serve one of the few countries in the world where the grandson of a poor farmer in India can be asked by the president-elect to look out for the health of the entire nation”, Murthy said.