Senate OKs Leavitt as Next Health Secretary

Supporters of Prescription Drug Importation End Threat to Delay Confirmation Vote

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Finding an FDA Commissioner on Priority List

Jan. 26, 2005 - The Senate on Wednesday unanimously backed President George W. Bush's pick to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Michael O. Leavitt, 53, the outgoing head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was approved by a voice vote, a procedure reserved for noncontroversial issues in the Senate. Still, his confirmation was in some doubt earlier this week when backers of legalized prescription drug importation threatened to hold up his nomination.

With the Senate's approval Wednesday, Leavitt is set to succeed outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who announced plans to step down and seek work in the private sector.

Leavitt raised eyebrows during his confirmation hearings when he refused to rule out future cuts to Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income people run by the states and the federal government.

Lawmakers of both parties urged the former three-term Utah governor not to pursue a possible Bush administration initiative that would cap federal Medicaid spending and give states far more freedom in deciding on health benefits. Leavitt told Senators that he knows of no administration plan to cap Medicaid spending, but said that broad changes to the program were likely.

Finding an FDA Commissioner on Priority List

Leavitt received little substantial opposition, though a handful of lawmakers had suggested that they might use Senate rules to hold up his nomination. Delay threats from Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) were dropped Tuesday in exchange for an agreement from Senate Republican leaders to hold hearings soon on bipartisan legislation allowing prescription drugs to be imported from Canada and other industrialized countries, Senate aides say.

Leavitt will take over HHS at a key point for many of its agencies. Several lawmakers have vowed to launch efforts to reform the way the Food and Drug Administration monitors medication safety in the wake of Merck & Co.'s recall of Vioxx and new warnings over suicide risks in children taking antidepressant drugs.

Senators pressed Leavitt to act quickly with the White House to name a permanent FDA commissioner, a seat that has been left vacant for nearly a year since former commissioner Mark B. McClellan, MD, left to head up the federal Medicare and Medicaid agency.

Continued

Lester M. Crawford, the agency's acting commissioner, tells WebMD that the process of finding a permanent commissioner was a priority and would begin "almost right away" after Leavitt's confirmation.

Leavitt will also take control of Medicare, which is in the process of implementing wide-ranging reforms, including a first-ever prescription drug benefit for 40 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries.

Leavitt told lawmakers last week that putting the new benefit in place for a scheduled Jan. 1, 2006 start would be the "the main event" at HHS this year.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 26, 2005

Sources

SOURCES: Michael O. Leavitt, nominee, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Lester M. Crawford, acting commissioner, Food and Drug Administration.

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