Dr. Gupta Withdraws Name for Surgeon General

CNN doctor out of the running, leaving another vacancy for Obama team.

February 20, 2009, 4:05 PM

March 5, 2009 — -- Sanjay Gupta says he is no longer in the running to be the nation's next surgeon general, CNN reported today, as President Obama brought health care to center stage.

CNN cited his desire to continue working instead as a neurosurgeon and CNN medical analyst. His wife is pregnant with their third child.

It has been two months since ABC News first learned that Obama was paging CNN journalist Dr. Sanjay Gupta to become the nation's next surgeon general.

Since early January, several people have speculated about what was taking the celebrity doctor so long to answer the call.

And despite some concerns about Gupta's qualifications, some said the reason the surgeon general selection had not been formally announced since Gupta's name leaked on Jan. 6 may not have had anything to do with Gupta himself.

Until Obama announced Kathleen Sebelius as his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Serivces earlier this week, the spot for the administration's top health official was also vacant. Two weeks ago, several medical experts said that given the Feb. 3 withdrawal of Tom Daschle, Obama's initial pick for the HHS secretary's post, Obama's team may have been reassessing the balance.

HHS is the umbrella agency that encompasses the office of the surgeon general.

"Whether or not a new HHS secretary would want him or how this works out, I think this is all up in the air," ABC News medical contributor Dr. Timothy Johnson had told ABCNews.com.

The White House, too, had said it was waiting to fill the top post at HHS before making an official announcement about surgeon general. Coupled with efforts to make the vetting process more stringent after the withdrawal of three Cabinet nominees, many said the Obama team would take its sweet time in bringing Gupta to Washington.

Logistical and financial concerns, as well as hiccups in the vetting process, could have played a part, too.

For starters, Gupta would have likely taken a pay cut as he moved from television personality and neurosurgeon to federal employee. As CNN's chief medical correspondent, a practicing neurosurgeon and associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, and an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine, Gupta likely earns much more than he would have as surgeon general.

Meanwhile, the prospect of Gupta taking the job had also proven controversial.

Dr. James Floyd, researcher at consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said several of Gupta's broadcast reports "undermine his credibility," whether reporting on autism or screening tests and prevention.

For instance, Floyd is among those who said Gupta was too soft on Merck's Vioxx drug before it was removed from the market, explaining, "He completely just misinterpreted how the data was reported.

"He seems a lot of times like a spokesperson for the latest and greatest drugs or technology," Floyd said.

Gupta also found himself at the center of a very public flap about getting his facts wrong in critiquing filmmaker Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko," which was about America's health care problems. The filmmaker and the doctor hashed it out on "Larry King Live."

"Whatever you think about the movie or Michael Moore, [Gupta] really just did it wrong," Floyd said.

According to the office's Web site, the surgeon general's mission is to serve "as America's chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury."

Meanwhile, Gupta has continued to report for CNN throughout the winter, though the media outlet vowed to ensure he did not cross the line as a potential political nominee.

"Since first learning that Dr. Gupta was under consideration for the U.S. surgeon general position, CNN has made sure that his on-air reporting has been on health and wellness matters and not on health care policy or any matters involving the new administration," the network said in a statement released in January.

"If he just sticks to clinical matters, I think that's OK," Johnson said.

Still, Gupta's star power was a potential asset for Obama's administration in helping to raise the profile of the office and sell health decisions to the public.

"I think that when he was initially announced, a lot of people touted that he's a prominent public figure and he has a large TV audience, so the capacity of the surgeon general to disseminate a message, he could fill that role well," Floyd said.

Among those who considered him a good fit for the job was former surgeon general Jocelyn Elders, arguably the most controversial person to hold the post. Elders resigned in 1994 after making a controversial statement about masturbation.

In addition to his current jobs, Gupta, 39, was chosen for the selective White House Fellows program in 1997, through which he served as special advisor to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady.

Still, others outside of the medical community had said they'd oppose his appointment.

"There are highly experienced medical professionals who question whether Dr. Gupta has the necessary experience or even the medical background to be in charge of the 6,000 physicians who work in the United States Public Health Service," wrote Rep. John Conyers, Jr., a Democrat from Gupta's home state of Michigan, in a letter to House lawmakers opposing the pick.

Conyers later added, "Clearly, it is not in the best interests of the nation to have someone like this who lacks the requisite experience needed to oversee the federal agency that provides crucial health care assistance to some of the poorest and most underserved communities in America."

"In general, it's hard to get all those appointments in place and vetted," said Karen Davis, president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a private foundation that supports research on health system performance.

Still, she added, "Health is an urgent issue that needs attention, so the sooner they have leadership, the better."

ABC News' Dan Childs and David Muir contributed to this report.

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