Two years ago, I wasted no time in saying that confirming Dr. Vivek Murthy to serve as U.S. surgeon general would be a mistake. I believed at the time that his nomination was politically -- not medically --motivated, and that he would only seek to pursue items that fit with his social activism agenda as opposed to concerning himself with the health of our nation. Now, here we are in 2016, and it saddens me to say that I was right, because he never had any medical agenda.
You can imagine my shock today when I saw Murthy’s name in the news linked to a call for our nation to address the harrowing issues of drug and alcohol addiction. My first reaction was to scratch my head and ask, where the hell have you been? Our nation has been crippled by an opioid and heroin epidemic that is swallowing our children, siblings, parents, loved ones and neighbors whole. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 -- which is the year Murthy was confirmed -- than any other year on record. In his own report, “Facing Addiction in America,” Murthy said that 78 people die each day from an opioid overdose, with 20 million more facing a substance use disorder. So I asked again, Murthy, where have you been?
And then I got very angry.
I had my reservations about Murthy taking on the role for political gains before, but now, just a few weeks before he’s set to be out of a job, he has confirmed those fears by stepping forward to exploit our nation’s very real health crisis in a bid to stay relevant.
If you think that I am being too harsh, consider this:
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services require every hospital to issue a standardized, publicly reported survey of patients’ perspective of hospital care called Hospital Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS). Up until a ruling issued this week, the survey included an area dedicated to pain management, that held more weight than any other on the questionnaire. If a patient answered that question in any way that might suggest the hospital staff was inattentive or failed to make the patient comfortable, it was likely that the prescribing physician would send the next patient home with an unnecessary prescription for a powerful painkiller. The fear of perception was destroying our health care system, and up until this revision, Murthy hadn’t lifted a finger to address it. As surgeon general, he should have known perfectly well that there are many other parameters that we could have used to measure a hospital’s success while striving to keep our patients safe. The changes that won’t go into effect January 1, 2017, will see that question disappear, and are a result of concerns raised by doctors that the questions about pain management unduly influence prescribing practices.
And then, something else clicked.
Under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, addiction treatment is considered essential health care. With President-elect Donald Trump likely to put parameters in place that will repeal or replace ObamaCare, the timing of Murthy’s report is despicable. For two years, he did nothing to develop national protocols to tackle opioid abuse and waited until a Republican was elected president to issue the first-ever report from a U.S. surgeon general dedicated to substance addiction. He could have used this platform to shape his legacy as surgeon general, but instead, it appears he chose to play politics while using our nation’s health as a pawn.
I have written countless articles about our overprescribed nation, and I have written about ways to bring our nation back from the deathly grips of addiction, but Murthy, the man sitting in a position to actually make it happen, stayed largely silent, waiting for the right moment to drop the hammer. Whoever inherits this job from him is going to walk into a mess, but as I wrote earlier, Trump is the right man to tackle this epidemic, and I trust he’ll nominate a physician ready to help our nation heal. I cannot wait until Murthy is relieved of his “duties” as surgeon general, and returns to a world better suited for him. I don’t doubt his skills in the exam room, but he is one of the greatest failures to come out of the Obama Administration.