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Transcript: Gupta talks to King about surgeon general decision

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  • Gupta: "It really came down to a sense of timing"
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, withdrew his name from consideration as surgeon general of the United States on Thursday. He spoke to CNN's Larry King about the decision and President Obama's health care plans. Here is an edited transcript:

Dr. Sanjay Gupta says he just returned from India, where he looked into medical tourism.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta says he just returned from India, where he looked into medical tourism.

Larry King: But, first, breaking news about CNN's own Dr. Sanjay Gupta, long rumored to be the main candidate for U.S. surgeon general. He's taken himself out of the running. Joins us now here in Los Angeles to talk about it. Why?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Well, first of all, it was a really tough decision, and a long decision and a long process for sure. And I was incredibly flattered, humbled by the consideration even for the position.

I think for me it really came down to a sense of timing more than anything else. You know, I have two daughters. Our third daughter is now imminent. In fact, I have my phone on right here, I might get called off the set.

King: As we talk.

Gupta: As we talk, my wife is imminent with our third child. You know, this job that we have collectively takes us away from our children for so many years at once, and I sort of came to grips with the fact that I'd probably be away at least the first several years, four or five years -- there's my existing two daughters, one more on the way -- but several years of their lives. And I just didn't feel like I should do that now.

And the other thing, let me just add, you know, you know me and a lot of people know me, obviously, as a journalist for CNN, but you know, I continue to practice neurosurgery, Larry. You and I have talked about that, and I...

King: You do brain surgery all the time.

Gupta: Yes. And it's an important part of my life. And I work at a county hospital. That's the hospital I've chosen to work at in Atlanta [Georgia]. And I really enjoy that.

I came to grips with, ironically, that being surgeon general, I probably would not be able to continue to practice surgery.

King: How about the cut in pay?

Gupta: Well, you know, that's a sacrifice we were willing to make.

I think, you know, either you're a public servant or you're not a public servant. I've always been drawn to public service. So that really wasn't a consideration for me.

King: Was it an offer or a "would you consider if"?

Gupta: It's a little bit of a funny thing -- and I've never been through this process before. I guess the formal part of it is when you are nominated. I was not nominated, but I had conversations with the senior-most people that would make an offer, and they told me they wanted me to do this job. So...

King: Was it the thought of [Democratic former] Sen. Tom Daschle, who was going to be secretary of health, that you be his surgeon general?

Gupta: Well, I did have conversations with him, but you know, the fact that he withdrew did not play as big a role in my mind in terms of not considering the job. Again, I think either you do public service or you don't. You want your job to be as precisely defined as possible, for sure, but that wasn't a major factor.

King: The way it was presented, then, you feel that you would have been offered it even if Daschle had not left or had left, no matter what?

Gupta: I think so. You know, I mean, you know, I've had a lot of conversations with the White House folks. I think there was a big interest on their part, and obviously they know of my dedication to public service. I think there was a real melding there.

King: Do you have anyone you would recommend for that job?

Gupta: You know, no one off the top of my head. I mean, I think whoever takes that job really does have to make it a higher-profile job. I mean, this is an important job. I have a great deal of respect for the office and for the commissioned corps. You've seen the work they do. They do life-saving...

King: A lot of clout.

Gupta: Yes, a lot of clout, life-saving, life-preventing work -- or life-preserving work -- all over the country every single day. And I think that it has to have a little bit of a higher profile. Whoever takes this job has to be out there really advocating the issues of public health. At no time is it probably more important than right now, as we're dealing with health care reform. These issues really go hand in hand.

King: Well, their loss is a continuing our gain.

Gupta: I appreciate that.

King: If I may speak to it.

Gupta: I would miss this witty banter for sure, back and forth.

King: May I speak for CNN. But you had to be flattered.

Gupta: I was flattered. And you know, I have a great deal of respect for that office. And I in no way want people to think that I don't. This is really more about my family and my surgical career.

King: Couple other notes. I know you're just back from India. I want to ask about that.

Gupta: Yes.

King: President Obama held a health care summit [Thursday] at the White House. More than 100 experts, policy makers took part, including some who opposed the Clinton administration's health care reform back in the '90s. Do you support his aims?

Gupta: He is drawing an inextricable relationship between the economy and health care. As people talk -- the economy is issue No. 1, as we talk about all the time. But he's making the point, I think, and he has been for some time, even while he was campaigning, that you cannot talk about the economy without talking about health care.

The businesses have to provide health care insurance for their employees. It is often very difficult for them to do that, in addition to trying to reach some sort of profit from their product. So I -- that message, I think, has been pretty loud and clear, and I think it is resonating.

He's also talking about the fact that you can't fix the health care system without bringing down costs of health care overall. And since you brought it up, I was just in India, and one of the stories that I was doing was about medical tourism. Here is a good example -- 750,000 Americans leave the United States every year to go abroad for life-saving operations. Why? Mainly because of cost. It can be up to a tenth of the cost in some of these countries such as India, such as Singapore.

King: Open-heart surgery in India might be one-tenth of what it costs here?

Gupta: One-tenth. Hip surgery, neurosurgery. All -- a lot of these various operations. And the real question, and I think it's a question worth exploring, is why? How can they do it so much cheaper?

How can they offer good-quality care? I saw it. It is good-quality care. I saw that with my own eyes. What do we have to learn? And how can we use this to help reform our health care system?

King: Is there an assumption that we have the best doctors, that we do it better than anybody else, that's an American assumption?

Gupta: Yes. And I think, you know, we do provide very good health care for people who have access to it.

King: Ah.

Gupta: And I think that's part of the problem.

King: That's the rub, though, right?

Gupta: That is the rub. And I think there are really two schools of thought, which we are going to hopefully distill down, as we talk about this issue more and more. One is, do you revamp the entire health care system? Do you say, look, this health care system is broken, toss it all out, let's start all over again? Or do you say, look, it works pretty well for a fraction of the population. Let's see who it doesn't work for and fix those things only. So don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Let's target what's broken and focus on that.

King: What role in all of this will the new surgeon general play?

Gupta: I really don't know. I'm not sure. At one point...

King: He would have to be a proponent for it, you would think.

Gupta: You know, the surgeon general has an interesting position, and this is something that I learned. It is truly one of the more apolitical positions at that senior level. So they are really the nation's doctor. I think that they really have to focus on making sure that best health practices are constantly known. It's amazing how high the health illiteracy rate remains in this country. To remind people how to best take care of themselves.

King: One other thing. Do you think it's going to -- do you think we're going to get a new health care program?

Gupta: I think so. It's going to take a long time. I think that it may not even happen within this first term, if there is a second term for him. So I think it's not going to be something that happens certainly overnight. The fact that they had a health care summit this early on I think is probably a good sign of at least his commitment to this issue.

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