This is a story of health care and two Americans; a tale of two citizens, if you will.
This week, Regina Benjamin was nominated by President Obama as our next surgeon general, charged with educating Americans on medical issues and overseeing the United States Public Health Service. She was the first African-American woman to head a state medical society, a member of the board of trustees of the American Medical Association and last year was named the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award."
But more important, she's a country doctor, a family physician along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, serving the poor and uninsured - white, black and Asian. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed her clinic - the second time a hurricane had done so - she mortgaged her own home to rebuild it. The day it was to reopen, a fire burned the clinic to the ground. Moving to a trailer, Dr. Benjamin and her staff never missed a day of work.
Stan Wright, the tobacco-chewing mayor of Bayou La Batre, the small shrimp-fishing community in which Dr. Benjamin practices, told National Public Radio, "She'll do whatever she's gotta do to make sure everyone's taken care of."
Benjamin will no doubt bring that same ethic to the fight for health care reform. When President Obama announced her nomination in a Rose Garden ceremony Monday, Dr. Benjamin said, "These are trying times in the health care field, and as a nation, we have reached a sobering realization. Our health care system simply cannot continue on the path that we're on. Millions of Americans can't afford health insurance or they don't have the basic health services available where they live." Although the clinic has not been able to give Dr. Benjamin a salary for years - Mayor Wright says she's owed over $300,000 - she buys medicine for her patients out of her own pocket.
In fact, many of the folks in Regina Benjamin's bayou town are so poor that sometimes she's paid with a pint of oysters or a couple of fish. She's fine with that. And she makes house calls.
Now meet H. Edward Hanway, chairman and CEO of CIGNA, the country's fourth-largest insurance company. At the beginning of the year, CIGNA blamed hard economic times when it announced the layoff of 1,100 employees, but it reported first-quarter profits of $208 million on revenues of nearly $5 billion. Mr. Hanway has announced his retirement at the end of the year, and the living will be easy for him, financially at least. He made $11.4 million in 2008, according to The Associated Press, and some years more than that.
That's a lot of oysters, although he lags behind Ron Williams, CEO of Aetna Insurance, who made $17.4 million last year, or John Hammergren, the head of McKesson, the biggest health care company in the world. His compensation was $29.7 million.
Here's the difference. To Dr. Regina Benjamin, health care is a public service, helping people in need with grace and compassion. To Ed Hanway and his highly paid friends, it's big business, a commodity to be sold to those who can afford it. And woe to anyone who gets between them and the profits they reap from sick people.