Obama Taps 'Genius' Doctor, Katrina Victim for Surgeon General

President Obama is counting on the woman he's tapped to become the next surgeon general to be a top advocate for his health care reform plan.

In a Rose Garden announcement Monday of her nomination, Obama called Dr. Regina Benjamin, a 2008 MacArthur Foundation fellow who in 1990 founded a medical clinic in the poor fishing town of Bayou La Batrie, Ala., a woman who knows firsthand about the tribulations of the uninsured poor. 

"When people couldn't pay, she didn't charge them. When the clinic wasn't making money, she didn't take a salary for herself. When Hurricane George destroyed the clinic in 1998, she made house calls to all her patients while it was rebuilt. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of her town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time," Obama said. 

Benjamin survived "floods and fires and severe want" and "refused to give up," the president said.

Obama said he now wants her to help him flex some muscle in getting a national health care system in place. 

"The status quo on health care is no longer an option for the United States of America. If we step back from this challenge right now, we will leave our children a legacy of debt, a future of crushing costs that bankrupt our families, our businesses and, because we will have done nothing to bring down the costs of Medicare and Medicaid, will crush our government," he said. 

A former student of one-time Surgeon General David Satcher, Benjamin said America's "health care system simply cannot continue on the path that it's on."

"Millions of Americans can't afford health insurance or they don't have the basic health services available where they live," she said as Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stood by her side.

Benjamin said that her medical school was paid for by the National Health Service Corps, a program that helps underserved communities. She said in exchange for her education, NHSC placed her in Bayou La Batre. But once her time was up there, she decided to stay. 

"As a physician, my priority has always been the needs of my patients. I decided I would great patients regardless of their ability to pay. However, it has not been an easy road," she said. "It should not be this hard for doctors and other health care providers to care for their patients. It shouldn't be this expensive for Americans to get health care in this country."

Benjamin founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in 1990, where she twice served the poor Gulf Coast fishing community after Hurricanes Georges, in 1998, and Katrina, in 2005. 

After it was rebuilt following Katrina, her clinic burned down again. Benjamin received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2008, which she spent on rebuilding the clinic.

At the time of the award, she told of her patients' desperation that she rebuild, recalling one woman who handed her an envelope with a $7 donation to help.

"If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest," Benjamin said last fall as she accepted her grant.

Benjamin said Monday that becoming the nation's chief public health advocate is very personal to her after having watched her brother die at age 34 of HIV-AIDS, her mom die of lung cancer and her dad die of complications related to diabetes. 

"This is a physician's dream, but for me this is more than just a job," she said. "My family is not here with me today, at least not in person, because of preventable diseases. While I can not change my family's past, I can be a voice in the movement. ... My hope, if confirmed as surgeon general, is to be America's doctor."

Benjamin has served as the associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama's College of Medicine and was president of the State of Alabama Medical Association from 2002-2003.

She has received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the distinguished service medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

In 1995 Benjamin became the first black woman and youngest doctor ever admitted to the American Medical Association's board of trustees.

She received her M.D. from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1984; and holds an M.B.A. from Tulane University. She completed her residency in family practice at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in 1987. 

Her nomination for surgeon general requires Senate confirmation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.