The lack of a surgeon general -- the federal government’s top public health spokesperson -- has become a point of contention as the public panics about Ebola. Sen. Ted Cruz said President Barack Obama is to blame for the fact that the position hasn’t been filled.
"Look, of course we should have a surgeon general in place," Cruz, R-Texas, said on CNN’s State of the Union Oct. 19. "And we don’t have one because President Obama, instead of nominating a health professional, he nominated someone who is an anti-gun activist."
Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy in November 2013, but Senate Republicans blocked his confirmation the following spring because of alleged anti-gun leanings. The National Rifle Association, which scores policymakers’ records on gun rights, announced that it would ding senators who voted for Murthy.
CNN’s Candy Crowley pushed back on Cruz’s assertion, noting that Murthy is a doctor. Cruz acknowledged that, but repeated his original point: "He is a doctor, but where he’s made his name is as a crusader against Second Amendment rights."
It’s up for debate how much of an impact the surgeon general would have in the current Ebola situation.
But it’s bogus for Cruz to imply that Murthy -- a graduate of Yale School of Medicine -- is not primarily a health professional. It’s also a bit of a stretch to call Murthy an "anti-gun activist."
A career in public health
Here are some of Murthy’s credentials as a health professional:
Received his doctor of medicine degree in 2003 from the Yale School of Medicine;
Has contributed to vaccine development and cancer research published in several medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, Science, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute;
Co-founded TrialNetworks, which provides medical researchers with information technology systems for managing clinical trials;
Member of the U.S. Presidential Advisory Council on Prevention, Health Promotion and Integrative and Public Health.
Also of note: As a student, Murthy co-founded two India-based public health projects, one while as an undergraduate at Harvard University and the other while at Yale. The first focused on AIDS prevention, and the latter trained women in rural areas to address community health issues.
Where Murthy starts to get in hot water with Republicans is with Doctors for America, which he founded and currently heads. Doctors for America is a pro-Affordable Care Act health care reform advocacy group. They started out in 2008 as Doctors for Obama, an arm of the Obama presidential campaign.
Doctors for America’s primary cause is health care reform and expanding access to medical services. However, the group also considers gun violence a public health problem, and they have pushed gun control legislation. At a 2013 conference, they held a reducing gun violence workshop.
Of particular concern for the NRA is a letter Doctors for America sent to Congress Jan. 14, 2013, following the Sandy Hook school shooting. Murthy’s signature is on the letter.
The letter lays out several policy suggestions, including a ban on assault weapon sales, instituting universal background checks and removing laws that prohibit doctors from asking patients if they own a gun -- similar to other Doctors for America proposals.
These policy proposals are relatively mainstream and expected from someone who is a political ally to the president. They are also similar to policies supported by other medical associations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. But the NRA has painted the Doctors for America policy proposals as radical.
The NRA and Senate Republicans also made hay with Murthy’s Twitter. In 2012 and 2013, he tweeted occasionally about gun violence -- expressing plainly that he believes in more gun control and that he considers it a health care issue.
But does this mean he’d be an advocate for gun control as surgeon general?
When we asked Cruz's office for comment, spokesperson Catherine Frazier told us this: "It is wrong to cherry-pick one line out of context from the argument that Sen. Cruz was making, which is that the president’s nominee is no mere health professional, he is a liberal activist that has indicated he would use his position to further a gun control agenda. Both Republicans and Democrats have voiced concern over the nomination."
In Murthy’s opening statement at his surgeon general confirmation hearing, though, he listed other public health issues as priorities -- including obesity (his stated primary cause), vaccine-preventable diseases and tobacco use. He did not mention gun control.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., read aloud one of Murthy’s tweets. In response, Murthy said he would not use the surgeon general role as a "bully pulpit for gun control."
He added: "The role is not to be a legislator or a judge. The role is to be a public health educator and to bring the country together around our most pressing health care challenges, and I believe at this point that obesity is the defining public health challenge of our time. That is where I intend to put my primary focus."
Cruz said, "President Obama, instead of nominating a health professional, he nominated someone who is an anti-gun activist."
Murthy has a long list of credentials showing he is a health professional, including his position as an attending physician at a leading hospital. Murthy runs a health care reform organization that has pushed for gun control measures, and he has expressed personal support for gun control. But enacting gun control is not Murthy’s main cause and not part of his public surgeon general platform.
It’s no secret that Murthy is a political ally for Obama and backs his positions on gun control. But it's inaccurate to say he's an anti-gun activist but not a health care professional. We rate Cruz’s claim False.
Update, Oct. 24, 2014: After we published this item, Frazier, Cruz’s spokeswoman, wrote us to say that we didn’t note in our original report that Cruz acknowledged Murthy was a medical doctor. We have added to the story additional context from the interview with Crowley to make that clear. Still, we continue to believe that Cruz was inaccurate to minimize Murthy’s substantial record as a medical professional -- in ways unrelated to gun policy -- and caricature him as primarily an advocate. Our rating remains the same.