Brookline doctor gets some tough questions, invitations for visits, during confirmation hearing for surgeon general

WASHINGTON—Several Republican senators said they were concerned with Dr. Vivek Murthy’s political activity favoring both gun control and President Obama’s health law. But at least one said during a confirmation hearing Tuesday that he expected the Brookline doctor would be approved as surgeon general and two others invited him to visit their states.

Murthy said he would focus on community health prevention projects, especially combatting obesity, and not primarily on political issues. Murthy, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, founded Doctors for America, a national organization of 16,000 doctors and medical students that has advocated for the Affordable Care Act.

“The role is not to be a legislator or a judge,” Murthy told members of the Senate’s Health Education, Labor & Pensions committee. “The role is to be a public health educator.”

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The top Republican on the committee, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, expressed some of the strongest skepticism during the 90-minute hearing.

“The first concern is much of your credential, it seems to me, is a political credential,” Alexander said.

He and other senators also questioned Murthy about prior posts on Twitter that criticized politicians who opposed gun control and spoke in favor of requiring employers to provide female contraception under the health law.

“How would you balance what seems to be a fairly partisan side with being objective?” asked Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican.

Murthy said he believed the surgeon general should focus on areas where there is broad agreement, including prevention of chronic diseases, efforts to curb smoking, and programs to improve diets. He also said he would try to work at the community level, recruiting religious groups and even arts organizations into public health education programs.

And several senators extolled the Yale educated physician’s qualifications, including his work in starting companies and nonprofits devoted to improving medical trials and AIDS education.

“I am struck by his passion for his work,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who formally introduced him. “Throughout his career, Dr. Murthy has excelled.”

The role of surgeon general is primarily public health advocacy. Murthy was also asked about medical marijuana, an issue that has recently gained new prominence as several states have liberalized their laws. Massachusetts allows marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Murthy said he had heard anecdotal evidence from patients who had been prescribed medical marijuana by other doctors. But he had not prescribed it himself and believes there should be more research before it is used for medical or recreational purposes.

“Just like other drugs, I don’t recommend marijuana. And I don’t think it’s a good habit to use marijuana. And if I had kids, I’d tell them not to use it.”