President Barack Obama named Dr. Regina Benjamin as U.S. surgeon general in an announcement late this morning at the White House.
Benjamin, an Alabama family physician, runs a rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala. She was the first African–American woman to head a state medical society and received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" last year.
Benjamin, who must be confirmed by the Senate, became known nationally for her determination to rebuild her clinic, destroyed by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and again by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"For nearly two decades Dr. Regina Benjamin has seen, in a very personal way, what is broken about our health care system," Obama said today, introducing his pick in the Rose Garden. "She's seen an increasing number of patients who have had health insurance their entire lives suddenly lose it because they lost their jobs or because it's simply become too expensive."
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Benjamin enters the fray as the debate over health care escalates in Washington, D.C.
"We are now closer to the goal of health care reform than we have ever been," Obama said today, but also adding, "Even though we are close, I've got no illusions that it's going to be easy to get over the finish line."
Benjamin said, "This is a physician's dream. But for me, it's more than just a job."
Citing her relatives' struggles with illnesses, Benjamin added, "My family's not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases."
In her profile in the National Institutes of Health, Benjamin writes about her calling to become a doctor while in medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"I believe it was divine intervention -- it was in medical school when I realized there was nothing else I'd rather do with my life than to be a doctor. I had never seen a black doctor before I went to college, so I did not have an idea that I wanted to be one. I never thought I that I couldn't, but I never really thought about it at all."
According to a 1997 article in Ebony magazine, Benjamin said she applied to Yale University School of Law before she attended college. "They sent me a reply politely telling me that I needed my undergraduate degree first," she said.
To pay for college, she turned to the National Health Service Corps, which gave her tuition reimbursement in exchange for committing to work in areas where there was a shortage of doctors. That agreement took her to Bayou La Batre, where she was the only doctor for 2,500 people, most of whom lived below the poverty line and spoke no English.
Benjamin was named the Person of the Week on ABC News' "World News Tonight" in 1995 and conveyed the challenges of servicing poor patients.
"The people are real, genuine, hardworking. They're proud people. They make a living the best they can on shrimp boats. They, unfortunately, are too poor to pay their medical bills at times," she told ABC News' Peter Jennings.
"Sometimes, it's very frustrating. Sometimes I can do everything that the textbooks taught me and school taught me and then patients can't buy their medicine. And it's all for nothing."
Although some doctors expressed concern today about Benjamin's lack of background in public health, many others responded with enthusiasm to Obama's announcement.
Dr. Doris Cope, director of the pain medicine program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the pick "signifies a step to more basic, less complicated medical care."
"I have known of Regina's work with the disadvantaged in Bayou La Batre since my residency days at the University of South Alabama," Cope said today. "Her appointment highlights the importance of primary care physicians delivering hands-on care to patients. In the highly specialized world of academic medicine, the value of committed primary-care physicians in underserved, rural areas, is often underrated and underpaid."
But Dr. David Katz, associate adjunct professor in public health at Yale University, highlighted different qualifications he said Benjamin lacks.
"Dr. Benjamin is largely an unknown to the public health community and academic clinical medicine, making her qualifications hard to judge," Katz said. "She certainly does not have particular expertise in some of the more pressing public health matters of our time, such as the epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases, which is a potential disappointment."
"But she clearly brings passion and dedication, both vital ingredients," Katz added.
Dr. Albert Levy, assistant professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said, "I am very proud of President Obama's choice and I am confident that this will be the sign for new beginnings in the general U.S. health system. The family doctor is essentially the one who represents the individual, the family, the community and our nation."
Benjamin said today, "Our health care system simply cannot continue on the path that we're on."
ABC News' Dan Childs contributed to this report.