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Surgeon general nominee Murthy's prospects remain murky

Time is running out for Dr. Vivek Murthy.

President Barack Obama's pick to be the country's 19th surgeon general has waited more than a year for Senate confirmation. With Republicans set to take control of the Senate in 2015, Murthy's last chance is the lame-duck session that's slated to end Friday.

Murthy's nomination has been hung up in part over comments he made before his nomination about considering gun violence a public health issue, provoking the wrath of the National Rifle Association. That made some Democrats hesitant to back his candidacy, especially before the midterm elections.

But after the Democrats got shellacked at the ballot box, there seems to be renewed momentum to confirm Murthy as surgeon general. He would be the first Indian-American to serve in that post.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who just won a tough re-election contest, came out in support of Murthy on Monday. “Dr. Murthy brings an entrepreneurial focus, and he is committed to using technology to expand our outreach on health and wellness in innovative ways,” Warner said in a written statement. “I believe he will make an excellent surgeon general.”

The Huffington Post reported on Wednesday that Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas are also now backing Murthy's nomination. Pryor was defeated in his re-election bid.

Healthcare advocacy groups have been making a renewed push to get his nomination through. More than 100 healthcare organizations, including the American College of Physicians, the American Heart Association and the Trust for America's Health, signed off on a letter last month (PDF) urging senators to approve his nomination.

Dr. Robert Wergin, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said he's had patients at his office in rural Nebraska raise concerns about whether they might be at risk of contracting Ebola even though they've been nowhere near West Africa. He sees that as evidence of the need for Murthy to be confirmed. “We feel it's time to have him be what we would call America's doctor, to speak with one voice and to give accurate information to the citizens of the United States,” Wergin said.

But Murthy's nomination continues to face hurdles. Former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, who served under President George W. Bush and later ran unsuccessfully for the Senate as a Democrat, sent a letter to senators this week opposing the nomination, arguing that Murthy is too partisan and lacks the experience necessary for the post. Murthy founded the group Doctors for America, which supports Obama's healthcare reform law.

Murthy, a hospitalist, works at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and is an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. In 2011, he was appointed by Obama to serve on an HHS advisory council on health promotion and public health. He also has worked on HIV and AIDS education, co-founding a not-for-profit, Visions, focused on that mission in the U.S. and in India. In addition, he co-founded a software technology company, TrialNetworks, that works on improving research collaboration and enhancing the efficiency of clinical trials around the world.

Carmona said he first raised red flags about the nomination of the 37-year-old Murthy with the White House a year ago, but that his concerns weren't heeded. That's why he decided to raise them directly with senators. “This is not on-the-job training,” Carmona said. “You have to have a very seasoned individual.”

It remains an open question whether the Democrats have the votes to confirm Murthy. Calls to the offices of both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin seeking comment weren't returned. If the votes are there, it's expected that the vote will take place before the Senate adjourns next week. Otherwise, Murthy's nomination would be doomed.

“I'm cautiously optimistic,” said Sue Nelson, vice president for federal advocacy at the American Heart Association.

Follow Paul Demko on Twitter: @MHpdemko



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