Dec. 13, 2004 -- President George Bush on Monday named Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt to succeed Tommy G. Thompson as secretary of Health and Human Services.
In a 10-mintute White House ceremony, Bush called Leavitt, 53, the "right leader to lead HHS" as it moves to expand medical research and implement Medicare's prescription drug benefit for seniors starting in 2005.
Leavitt became EPA chief last year after serving as the Republican governor of Utah for 11 years. Bush credited him with improving children's access to health services during his tenure in the state.
If confirmed by the Senate, Leavitt will head one of the federal government's largest agencies. The department maintains an annual budget of approximately $505 billion, overseeing agencies including the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and Medicare and Medicaid.
Leavitt said he was looking forward to implementing Medicare's new drug benefit. He said he would also work to push for medical lawsuit reform and finding ways to lower the cost of health care.
"I'm persuaded that we can use technology and innovation to meet our most noble aspirations and not compromise our other values that we hold so dear," he said, echoing support for Bush's initiatives to advance health information systems and technology.
Leavitt will also take over the agency at a critical time for the FDA, which is under increasing scrutiny on Capitol Hill over its handling of the nation's flu vaccine shortage and of the safety of prescription drugs like Vioxx.
The American Medical Association released a statement praising Leavitt's nomination. "The AMA is eager to work with the new Secretary to reform the broken medical liability system, improve Medicare and increase access to health care," says AMA president John C. Nelson, who also calls Leavitt "a seasoned leader."
But the choice came as a surprise to some observers in Washington, many of whom expected Bush to name Medicare chief Mark B. McClellan, MD, to the secretary's post. McClellan is now to stay on to guide the agency through the task of implementing Medicare's drug benefit for 40 million beneficiaries next year.
One group expressed dismay at the appointment, saying Leavitt did not favor strengthening the Medicaid health program for the poor when he was Utah governor.
Ron Pollack, who leads the liberal-leaning consumers health group Families USA, tells WebMD that Leavitt "clearly expressed antipathy" toward the program during a speech before the Health Sector Assembly conference three years ago. Pollack says it could signal Leavitt's willingness to further a controversial administration attempt several years ago to reduce overall federal funding for the program.
"Now there's a secretary who's clearly been hostile to the program, and it makes many of us all the more fearful that the administration might try to pay for their tax cuts out of the hides of seniors and children who rely on Medicaid," he says.
Thompson, who served as Wisconsin's governor before becoming HHS secretary in 2001, announced his resignation on Dec. 3.