Dec. 3, 2004 -- Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson announced his resignation Friday, but not before weighing in on several controversial policy issues in Washington.
Thompson announced he would resign his cabinet post effective Feb. 4, 2005, or sooner if Congress confirms a replacement. Thompson says he intends to find work in the private sector but did not specify what kind of job he would seek.
"It's time for me and my family to move on to the next big chapter of our life," said Thompson, who has held public office for 38 years, including 14 years as a Republican governor of Wisconsin.
Bush released a statement praising Thomson as "a friend and a true public servant who worked every day to make Americans healthier and to help more Americans in need achieve the dream of independence and personal responsibility."
Often colorful, often controversial, Thompson presided over both victories and embarrassments at the government's largest agency. He oversaw a historic doubling of the budget at the National Institutes of Health and was key in helping push a Medicare reform bill through Congress that for the first time delivered prescription drug coverage to seniors and disabled persons.
"We touched the third rail of politics and delivered on our promise to modernize Medicare," he told reporters Friday.
But Thompson, known for outspokenness, then went against President Bush on one of the bill's most controversial provisions barring Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for lower consumer prices. The prohibition formed the basis of some of the sharpest attacks against Bush and other Republicans during the 2004 election campaign.
"I would like to have had the opportunity to negotiate," he said.
Thompson's penchant for independence sometimes rankled fellow Republicans and the White House. He angered many on Capitol Hill by repeatedly backing unsuccessful moves to give the FDA the power to regulate tobacco.
But he was also a guardian of White House policies. Bush called on Thompson to defend a controversial decision in 2001 that limited federal embryonic stem cell research to some 60 existing cell lines. The decision angered scientists and many disease research groups.
But he first gained national attention in the wake of the October 2001 anthrax letter attacks on media outlets and Capitol Hill. Thompson and his deputies took to the airwaves to calm the public about the dangers of anthrax but were sharply criticized for delivering sometimes confusing messages.
The former Wisconsin state assemblyman was also famous for his efforts to convince increasingly obese Americans to lead healthier lifestyles. He was known to hand out pedometers to reporters and almost anyone else he met, and liked to tout his own loss of 15 pounds as an example to others. He often did so in the same breath as promoting the consumption of Wisconsin cheese and beer.
Critical Time at HHS
Thompson said he tried to resign last year but was convinced to stay by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. He leaves at a critical time for the agency, which is moving to implement the huge Medicare overhaul in 2006.
The FDA, one of HHS's most high-profile agencies, has also had to defend itself over its handling of manufacturing problems at Chiron Corp., which in October initially left the U.S. without half of its expected supply of flu vaccine and sent officials scrambling to secure additional doses.
The FDA is also under fire for what many see as serious safety lapses, including the recall of the prescription painkiller Vioxx and unexpected new suicide warnings on antidepressant medications used by children.
Several FDA whistleblowers told Congress last month that scientists were often overruled by superiors when raising questions about drug safety and called for the creation of a separate and independent safety office at the agency.
Thompson Friday backed that proposal. "We have to have maybe an independent office of safety to look at the drugs," he said, suggesting that he could announce an FDA reorganization plan some time in the next two weeks.
Bush has not yet named Thompson's replacement, though Medicare chief Mark B. McClellan, MD, is widely thought to be a frontrunner along with Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Claude Allen, MD.
Thomson said that McClellan "would be a great secretary" and said that Allen is "also an outstanding person."
"The president has not asked my opinion," he added.