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NDSU Master of Public Health director nominated for U.S. surgeon general

Donald Warne

FARGO -- The director of North Dakota State University's Master of Public Health program has the backing of two national American Indian organizations to become the country's next surgeon general.

Donald Warne was among the list of four nominees given to President Barack Obama on July 3 by the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians.

He said it's a "tremendous honor" just to be considered for the job, especially coming from two of the country's largest and most respected American Indian organizations.

"But also it's a tremendous responsibility, and there are many segments of our population that need access to health services," he said. "It's a potential opportunity to make a positive impact."

Current U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, appointed to the job in 2009, announced June 12 that she would resign this month.

Warne said that while he's proud to be nominated, he'll be vying for the job with many other qualified candidates.

The National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians also nominated three others for the position: Lori Arviso-Alvord, the first Navajo woman to become a surgeon; former Indian Health Services Director Charles Grim; and former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Craig Vanderwagon.

Warne said many stakeholder groups and leaders make suggestions to the White House for a potential candidate, and the president will eventually appoint his pick with the consent of the Senate.

"My sense of it is there's significant competition, so it's not something that I'm counting on at all," he said. "I'm just very honored to be in the discussion."

Deputy Surgeon General Boris Lushniak will serve until a permanent replacement is selected for a four-year term.

Warne was born into a family with a focus on health care. His mother was a public health nurse in the Indian Health Service, and several uncles were healers in the traditional Lakota way of medicine in Pine Ridge, S.D.

The position of surgeon general doesn't come with a large staff or direct political power. But he said it's the highest level of work a physician can do in public health, and it comes with the opportunity to lead the public discussion on major health issues and spread information to prevent death and injury.

Warne said the best example is how the position helped launch anti-smoking efforts around the country, notably with then-Surgeon General Luther Terry's 1964 report warning that smoking may be hazardous to health.

If appointed, Warne said one of the biggest challenges he would try to address is the lack of access to health care and basic services for many in the country, especially among those in poverty who are disproportionately racial minorities.

"In a nation with the resources that we have, the fact that we allow some segments of our population to suffer unnecessarily and to die an early death is not acceptable, and it shouldn't be acceptable to any of us as Americans," he said.

Warne said the possible appointment would make him the country's first American Indian surgeon general. He said even if he isn't selected, there are many qualified physicians who could do the job.

"In addition to it being an honor comes tremendous responsibility," he said. "It's a responsibility to the entire nation, not just the population of American Indian people."