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Will Dr. Vivek Murthy’s Financial Disclosures Hurt his Confirmation as Surgeon General?

Will Dr. Vivek Murthy’s Financial Disclosures Hurt his Confirmation as Surgeon General?

  • An ethics document filed prior to his Feb. 25 confirmation reveals the Indian American was paid at least $2.6 million in consulting fees and speaking engagements since January 2020.

Vivek Murthy, President Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, was paid millions of dollars last year as coronavirus consultant to the private sector, The Washington Post has reported. Citing the ethics document filed by Murthy this month, the Post said  Murthy’s side hustle included consulting for Carnival Corporation’s cruise lines, Airbnb’s rental properties and other firms, as well as speaking fees from several of organizations. The Post says Murthy disclosed at least $2.6 million in consulting fees and speaking engagements since January 2020, “in addition to serving as an adviser to four companies that focus on health services and products.”

Murthy’s financial disclosures come just days before his Senate confirmation hearing, scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25. The Post said the disclosure “caught the attention of longtime health policy hands,” who said “Murthy has the most financial entanglements of any surgeon general pick in recent history.” Similarly, health watchdogs questioned his credibility as a spokesperson on the pandemic response and presidential adviser, the Post said. 

A Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official told the Post that the Biden administration is supporting Murthy’s nomination. “If confirmed to serve for a second time as Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy will provide the public with clear, accurate health information to keep them safe, rooted only in facts and science,” said the unmade official. The Post said the official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a nominee in advance of his confirmation. “The Biden administration has committed to the highest level of ethics for all nominees, which is critical to earn and keep the public trust, and he has signed a strict and thorough ethics agreement,” the official said. 

“Vivek H. Murthy’s prior employment and investments clearly pose a conflict of interest,” Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a non-profit, progressive consumer rights advocacy group and think tank based in Washington, D.C., told the Post. “But the Biden administration and Office of Government Ethics are making a meaningful effort to manage these conflicts.”

Biden announced Murthy’s nomination in December 2020, for the role he previously held under the Obama administration. The surgeon general serves a four-year term and is the top government official in public health issues. Prior to the nomination, Murthy was one of the co-chairs of the COVID-19 advisory board of the Biden-Harris transition team. Since then, he has been a close associate of Biden on coronavirus issues.

Murthy, who served as surgeon general during President Obama’s second term, was abruptly fired by former president Trump, shortly after taking office. He was expected to narrowly win confirmation, but the financial disclosures “could complicate his candidacy given strong conservative opposition to gun violence,” the Post says. 

In 2014, Murthy was confirmed 51 to 43 votes, more than a year and half after being nominated, the Post reported then. Noting that the Republicans “have thus far stayed away from his finances,” the Post says it is “unclear whether Democrats will raise the issue, despite repeatedly chastising Trump’s health nominees for their corporate ties.”

Opposition from the Democrats could be expected from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) who had voted against Murthy in 2014. In a statement issued at the time, Manchin said Murthy’s “past comments and political involvement will have an impact on his leadership capabilities and effectiveness.” Meanwhile, his spokesman Sam Runyon told the Post that Manchin “has not decided how he will vote on Dr. Murthy’s nomination.”

On Feb. 19, a day before the Post broke Murthy’s story, Manchin had announced that he would vote against Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s nominee for the director of the Office of Management and Budget, putting Tanden’s nomination in jeopardy. “I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget,” read a statement from him. 

As per the ethics document, Murthy was paid $400,000 by Carnival Corporation; $410,000 in cash and 2,000 stock shares from Airbnb; and 547,500 from Netflix. He was also paid at least $522,650 “to deliver about three dozen speeches to a range of audiences, which included hospitals and health insurers, as well as firms like Google and UBS Financial Services, on a variety of topics.” The Post says Murthy most recently delivered a speech on Jan. 14 to Duke University’s ethics institute “about the value of working in the public sector,” for which he was paid $30,000.

Murthy founded the group Doctors for Obama in 2008 to help elect Barack Obama to the White House.After Obama’s win, Doctors for Obama rebranded as Doctors for America and worked closely with the influential Democratic-aligned group Center for American Progress to push for the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. 

Co-founder and president of Doctors for America, Dr. Murthy was a hospitalist attending physician and instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, a position he has held since 2006.

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 In 2011, he was appointed to serve as a Member of the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. Murthy has been the co-founder and chairman of the Board of TrialNetworks, formerly known as Epernicus, since 2007. He also co-founded VISIONS Worldwide in 1995, a non-profit organization focused on HIV/AIDS education in India and the United States, where he served as president from 1995 to 2000 and Chairman of the Board from 2000 to 2003.

He was a Vice Admiral in the U.S .Public Health Service’s commissioned corps and is trained in internal medicine.

Murthy attended Harvard University and graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemical sciences. He earned an MD degree from Yale School of Medicine and an MBA from Yale School of Management.  

Since leaving the government, he has written and spoken out about loneliness. Recently, he launched a book called “Together” (2020) which offers poignant lessons about relationships and a people-centered society and the healing powers of human connections. 

(Top photo: Dr. Vivek Murthy and his wife Dr. Alice Chen)

Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.

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