A new commissioner for FDA

The May 20th confirmation of Dr. Margaret Hamburg as the new Food and Drug Commissioner has been widely anticipated with strong support from many different sectors. A number of sworn enemies of each other are speaking highly of their hopes for a new day at FDA. Perhaps its appropriate to look at what took place during the “old days” at FDA.

When George W. Bush was inaugurated as President in 2001 the Food and Drug Commissioner was Dr. Jane Henney, a public health professional with a long career in academia and at FDA. She was not known for strong leadership, at least not among FDA field employees that I knew (I worked in the FDA field at the time), but she was credible and competent. There was also a Republican controlled Congress that opposed abortion rights for women and adamantly opposed approval of a drug known as RU-486. FDA under Henney took a long time to approve the drug, largely because of political pressure from anti-abortion activists. Finally, in September 2000, the drug was approved and anti-abortion groups continue to blame Henney to this day. When there was speculation in January that Barack Obama might appoint Henney to return as Commissioner one group had this to say:

“Washington, DC (LifeNews.com) — Leading pro-life advocates are not happy that incoming president Barack Obama is considering Jane Henney to become the next head of the Food and Drug Administration. Henney is a former FDA chief who oversaw the approval of the dangerous RU 486 abortion drug during the end of the Clinton administration.”

(Links referred to in this post have been retired, CA 21 SEP 11)

A link to the LifeNews article is on the right under “Dr. Hamburg & FDA Commissioners.” Henney submitted her resignation to Bush who immediately accepted it. However, there was a major problem. A potential commissioner nominee’s position on the approval of RU-486 would be a litmus test for the necessary Senate confirmation. It was going to be very difficult to have a new commissioner confirmed. This didn’t appear to concern President Bush who held off on appointing anyone and instead let Acting Principal Deputy Commissioner Bernard A. Schwetz, DVM, run the agency for a year. In the next seven years there were five Commissioners or Acting Commissioners of FDA, providing little continuity of leadership.

This is the first reason Dr. Hamburg is being greeted with such enthusiasm in some quarters. FDA Desperately needs strong, capable leadership. It also needs leadership that will be able to stand up to the multiple interest groups that all too often determine the Agency’s agenda. When I first joined FDA in 1987 we prided ourselves in being a “Science Based Agency.” That is just what we need, for FDA to make decisions based on science, not political pressure.

Although President Bush failed to appoint an FDA Commissioner after taking office he did appoint a new Chief Counsel, an appointment that didn’t require Senate confirmation, a gentleman named Daniel Troy. As a crusading pro-industry attorney Troy had taken FDA to the Supreme Court, and won, on behalf of free speech for tobacco companies. Troy would dramatically change how FDA regulated industry during his tenure and “Warning Letters,” the basic enforcement tool used by FDA plummeted. With weak leadership in the Commissioner’s office and Mr. Troy blocking enforcement of the regulations, morale at FDA sank and public health suffered.

And that is the second major reason people are hopeful that Dr. Hamburg will be an effective Commissioner. Her record as the New York City Health Commissioner and as the senior scientist for Nuclear Threat Initiative have given her solid credentials for leadership. People want the regulations for the safety of our food and drugs to be enforced. Between Vioxx and E. coli in spinach, there is a very real concern that FDA isn’t doing its job.

But why are so many different people from different interest groups happy to see her?If you look at the different links under Comments on Dr. Hamburg (to the right) you will see positive comments from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization, and PhRMA, the industry organization for Big Pharma. My suspicion is that EVERYONE knows that FDA is in trouble and they all want to influence the direction the Agency takes. Dr. Hamburg has genuine public health credentials, seems to be well liked, and was a shoo-in for confirmation from the start. So why not say nice things? I certainly wish her well. However, I also have a sense of which way the Agency should go:

1. The Agency should stop the politicalization of the past eight years. Drugs should be approved on the basis of science, not politics.

2. Congress should fully investigate whether there should be a single food safety organization and a separate health products safety organization. This is how it is done in much of the world and it is a very good idea here. (See previous posts)

3. The Agency should participate fully in international food and drug safety efforts. Congress should give guidelines from the International Conference on Harmonization the weight of regulations, not recommendations that industry can ignore. They should start with E6, the Combined Guidance on Good Clinical Practice and rejecting the Final Rule that broke with the Declaration of Helsinki in the months before the November presidential election.

4. The Agency should overhaul its inspectional force which is using a 100 year old model based on geography instead of technical expertise. This is particularly important for the management of the field organization, the Office of Regulatory Affairs. FDA’s field managers and field investigators should have the necessary expertise and training in an increasingly complex, globalized economy. FDA should use project management coordinating product reviewers, compliance officers and field inspectors. FDA inspections are rarely coordinated the way most people think.

5. Congress should abolish user fees that started with the Prescription Drug User Fee Act and independently finance FDA activities. Inspections and reviews should take place because there is a public health need, not a fee paid by a company requesting an FDA approval.

Finally, it is important to restore trust in public workers for the excellent work they do on behalf of all of us. Public workers perform work that we need as a society. Too many functions of government have been privatized and we have suffered for it. Professional service from career public servants is something to be commended, not disparaged. I’ll end with a quote from a civil servant in a different agency that sums up a lot:

“A strong civil service is the backbone of democracy. Civil servants sustain government function and institutional knowledge during and through the political transition that occurs when a new president is elected.”

Dr. Matthew C. Larsen
Associate Director for Water
U.S. Geological Survey

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