WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama nominated an Alabama country doctor who has three times resurrected her clinic in a fishing village after disasters to be U.S. surgeon general on Monday and help him advocate for healthcare reform.
Dr. Regina Benjamin promised to advocate for Obama's healthcare agenda as "America's doctor" if she gets the job as chief public spokesperson on health issues, saying her own family and patients have been victims of the failing U.S. system.
"Through floods and fire and severe want, Regina Benjamin has refused to give up. Her patients have refused to give up," Obama said in a White House Rose Garden announcement.
U.S. surgeons general in the past have issued influential reports on topics including smoking, AIDS and mental health.
Benjamin said she not only wanted to serve in the traditional role of surgeon general, encouraging healthy habits, but press to make medical care more easily available.
"My hope, if confirmed as surgeon general, is to be America's doctor, America's family physician," she said.
"As we work toward a solution to this healthcare crisis, I promise to communicate directly with the American people to help guide them through whatever changes may come with healthcare reform," she added.
"I want to ensure that no one, no one falls through the cracks as we improve our healthcare system."
Benjamin won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 2008 for founding and nurturing the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic to serve a Gulf Coast fishing community in 1990. It was devastated by Hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Katrina in 2005, and a third time by fire.
Obama used the Rose Garden news conference to step up pressure on Congress, seemingly bogged down in battles over the $1 trillion, 10-year cost of healthcare reform.
"We don't have to deal with hurricanes, we don't have to deal with floods and we don't have to deal with fires. All we have to do is pass a bill," he said.
Obama praised Benjamin for passing on personal profit to care for her patients.
"When Hurricane Katrina destroyed (her clinic) again and left most of her town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time," Obama said.
As surgeon general, Benjamin will lead the 6,000-member uniformed public Health Services Commissioned Corps, public health specialists and doctors who work for the federal government and include many experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Benjamin, born in 1956, is a protegee of two prominent black health officials: Dr. Louis Sullivan, a former Health and Human Services secretary who founded the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta to educate black doctors, and former surgeon general Dr. David Satcher.
She attended Morehouse, got her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has an MBA from Tulane University in New Orleans.
Her family is an example of why healthcare reform is vital, Benjamin said. "My father died with diabetes and hypertension. My older brother and only sibling died at age 44 of HIV-related illness," she said.
"My mother died of lung cancer because as a young girl she wanted to smoke, just like her twin brother could," she added.
"While I cannot change my family's past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation's healthcare and our nation's health for the future."
Editing by Doina Chiacu