National Consumers League

In defense of Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin -- Thank you for your service

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
Earlier this month, Forbes magazine contributor Henry I. Miller penned a needlessly nasty assessment of Dr. Regina M. Benjamin’s tenure as U.S. Surgeon General. Dr. Benjamin, who on Tuesday stepped down from the office she has held for more than four years, leaves behind a robust record of health advocacy, having tackled some of our country’s most challenging public health issues. In his piece, Miller declaims Dr. Benjamin for being “nowhere to be found since the beginning of President Obama’s first term.”

This could not be further from the truth! In promoting her National Prevention Strategy campaign, Dr. Benjamin regularly traveled to cities across the country, touting the importance of physical activity and wellness in often underserved communities that receive little media attention. Granted, Dr. Benjamin was not a press hound. And unlike her well-known predecessor Dr. C. Everett Koop—famed for flouting the will of politicians who wanted to suppress discussion of the nation’s AIDS epidemic, an extremely controversial and media-grabbing issue in the 1980s—Benjamin preferred to confront some of America’s most pernicious public health challenges without fanfare. Her priority initiatives included: combating the nation’s growing obesity problem (she helped to implement First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign), reducing tobacco use, trumpeting the importance of breastfeeding, and raising awareness of the country’s suicide epidemic, among others.

Dr. Benjamin’s commitment to confronting the greatest public health challenges working-class Americans face may not prompt the kind of controversy that would draw much media attention, but her impact in engaging this community has been unsurpassed. Dr. Jocelyn Elders, Surgeon General under President Clinton, (in)famous for controversial comments regarding sex education, confirmed that Benjamin “hadn’t been out on the firing line getting picked at like some of us in the past.” She added that Benjamin’s efforts have mostly taken place behind the scenes. Indeed, Dr. Benjamin clearly has dedicated herself to serving Americans in those places where she might not elicit a lot of public attention, but where she could make the biggest difference.

As Executive Director of the National Consumers League, I can personally attest to Dr. Benjamin’s commitment to educating Americans. Dr. Benjamin became an early champion for our Script Your Future Campaign to improve medication adherence. Poor adherence – patients not taking their medications as directed – is a $290 billion problem; 3 of 4 patients say they haven’t taken their medication as directed and 125,000 die each year on account of poor adherence. The Surgeon General helped NCL to launch the campaign at the George Washington University School of Public Health.

In early 2011, Dr. Benjamin launched a “Call To Action” in support of breastfeeding aimed at communities of color. If every woman who was able nursed her baby, we would save the health care system billions of dollars. The Surgeon General, who has gotten behind these and many other initiatives (with unprecedented outreach to minority communities), has made all the difference for community organizations dedicated to overcoming America’s most crippling public health challenges. Dr. Benjamin has been everything that Miller portrays her not to be, as the nation’s top public health official HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggests. Sebelius said that the Surgeon General has “touched the lives of millions of Americans and has had a positive impact on the health of this Nation.” Dr. Georges Benjamin (no relation), President of the American Public Health Association, said that “Regina Benjamin taught America how to walk again … and has been a remarkable advocate in promoting the value of prevention as a national health priority. Instead of lobbing ad hominem insults at Dr. Benjamin (Miller says she is obese, for example, which she is not) for her work as Surgeon General, we should be thanking her for her four years of distinguished service as the nation’s doctor.