Health revamp begins with office cleanup

Freedom New Mexico

President Barack Obama has appointed a worthy, even inspirational woman to be the country’s next surgeon general.

Dr. Regina Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre rural health clinic to serve an Alabama fishing village of 2,500. She has a refreshingly old-fashioned approach to her work, treating any and all patients regardless of ability to pay. The clinic was devastated by Hurricane George in 1998 and again by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She has rebuilt the clinic and continued to serve those who need medical services.

If we must have a surgeon general, Dr. Benjamin is a worthy choice. Whether we must have one is a question that should be raised, especially as President Obama is promising — and, as a Congressional Budget Office report suggests, apparently failing — to try to squeeze unnecessary health care spending out of the budget.

The surgeon general’s office has its roots in the Marine Health Service, which ministered to merchant seamen, and the Civil War, which accounts for the archaic-sounding title and the surgeon general’s quasi-military uniform. The actual functions of the office, beyond heading something called the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a 6,000-member group of health professionals who are on-call in the event of a public health emergency, are rather vague.

In practice, the surgeon general has evolved into something of a national scold: Use condoms to ward off AIDS, eat your peas, don’t smoke tobacco, don’t get too fat.

A glance at the office’s Web site shows the acting surgeon general has recently visited Nicaragua, celebrated World Blood Donor Day, promoted a physical fitness month with a press release and announced public service announcements to encourage healthy lifestyles.

With all due respect, this country has more than its share of official and unofficial national scolds. There’s no real need to have the taxpayers pay for one with an anachronistic title and no real duties.

We wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s medical correspondent whose name was floated as a possible surgeon general a few months ago, figured he would have more real influence doing regular reports on TV than as a government official.

Dr. Benjamin no doubt has already done more good by serving her community in Alabama than she will do in a four-year term as surgeon general.

President Obama seems to have no real idea about how to deliver on his oft-repeated promise to expand government responsibility for health care and simultaneously reduce overall spending. He could have made a promising symbolic gesture by abolishing the unnecessary office of surgeon general.