WASHINGTON — Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Harvard professor whose nomination for surgeon general was held up because of his support for gun control and his political activity in President Obama’s campaign, was confirmed Monday by the US Senate, more than a year after he was nominated.
As surgeon general, Murthy will be the nation’s chief public health advocate. Prior surgeons general have used the position to bring attention to health threats, particularly smoking and AIDS.
Murthy, 37, has said he will focus on preventing chronic diseases, efforts to curb smoking, and programs to improve diets and combat obesity. Surgeons general do not serve on the president’s Cabinet but they do advise the White House and use their platform to champion public health causes.
“We need a voice that we can trust who can explain these diseases to the American people and Dr. Murthy is absolutely the man with the medical expertise, the academic background, and the policy experience to do that,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Obama said in a statement that Murthy would help the administration’s effort to combat the Ebola virus.
“As ‘America’s Doctor,’ Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe,” he said.
Murthy, a Brigham and Women’s internal medicine physician, ran into opposition because of comments he has made on Twitter favoring gun control and because he founded an organization called “Doctors for Obama” in 2008 that advocated for Obama’s election and later morphed into a group called “Doctors for America” that boosted the health care law.
“The majority of his career has been spent, not as a doctor treating patients, but as an activist, an activist focused on gun control and political campaigns,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and physician, from the Senate floor on Monday.
Murthy was confirmed on a 51-43 vote that was largely along party lines. Just one Republican voted for him, while three Democrats voted against his confirmation. He did not need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster because Democrats changed Senate rules last year to allow confirmations on a simple majority vote.
Democrats, fearing they could not get a majority to support him even under the new rules, had delayed a vote on his nomination until after the November election. Party leaders feared some Democrats from conservative states would be reluctant to cast a vote before they faced voters.
The delay kept him on the sideline amid the public frenzy this year when the Ebola virus reached American shores. Obama instead appointed a temporary “Ebola Czar” in October, Ron Klain, an expert in managing political crises who has said he will step down in March.
“Many decried President Obama’s appointment of an Ebola Czar for that position when no one could step forward as surgeon general,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. “We lacked someone who could fill that role because of a misplaced and misguided opposition.”
Supporters said Murthy, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard as well as business and medical degrees from Yale, is eminently qualified. He has created two international community health groups, one that focuses on rural health in India and another on HIV/AIDS education in India and the United States. He also founded TrialNetworks, a software start-up company in Needham, to help drug developers collect information from clinical trials.
Murthy, the child of Indian parents who moved him from England to Miami when he was three, will be the first surgeon general of Indian descent.
Murthy’s activism on behalf of Obama’s health law, the Affordable Care Act, was viewed initially as his primary political obstacle. But he later drew opposition from the National Rifle Association, because of comments on his personal Twitter account.
“Tired of politicians playing politics w/ guns, putting lives at risk b/c they’re scared of NRA,” he wrote in October 2012. “Guns are a health care issue.”
During his conformation hearing in February, Murthy said he would focus on areas of broad public agreement.
That did not satisfy Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who will become Majority Leader next year.
“With America facing the challenge of Ebola and other serious health challenges, it’s unfortunate that the president chose a nominee based on the candidate’s political support instead of a long career delivering patient care and managing difficult health crises,” McConnell said in a statement after Monday’s vote.
During Monday’s Senate debate, Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the most prominent surgeon general in recent history, C. Everett Koop, had also been viewed as too political when he was first nominated by President Reagan. At the time, opponents feared Koop’s opposition to abortion rights made him a poor choice, Durbin said.
“When Dr. Koop took over as surgeon general, he made it clear that he understood his obligation was to be the nation’s doctor, not the nation’s leading medical politician,” Durbin said. “he did some extraordinary things.”
Koop was one of the most prominent people in public life to discuss AIDS during the 1980s, when it was taboo. He also led an aggressive fight against smoking that many people believe helped the country curb its addiction to tobacco.