Barack Obama

Daschle withdrawal could delay FDA pick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Drug and food manufacturers, consumer groups and others anxious for a new leader of the struggling Food and Drug Administration may be kept waiting since President Barack Obama’s pick for the nation’s health secretary has dropped out.

President-elect Barack Obama introduces former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (R) as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services during a news conference in Chicago, in this file photo from December 11, 2008. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Former Senator Tom Daschle on Tuesday withdrew as the nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA along with other agencies such as U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), as controversy swelled over his failure to pay more than $100,000 in taxes.

“In general, the Daschle mess slows everything down ... it has frankly really made a mess of all the appointments,” said Capital Alpha Partners health care analyst Kim Monk.

On Friday, the White House said it planned to announce a new FDA commissioner in the next few days. But many FDA watchers have said a nominee is not likely until an HHS secretary is confirmed.

Many are eager for new leadership at the FDA, which regulates products that make up roughly a quarter of the nation’s economy and has been hammered by a string of safety issues, from the withdrawal of Merck & Co Inc’s Vioxx painkiller to the current salmonella outbreak from tainted peanuts.

It did not have a permanent commissioner for more than half of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s two terms in office.

“We’re working on nominees for both of those positions,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters after Daschle resigned, referring to the FDA and CMS.

He offered no further details on timing.

“It probably will slow that down somewhat,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.


But others counter that Obama would be wise to plow ahead with his picks for the FDA and other smaller health agencies to keep up momentum on his desire to reform the health care system.

It could take weeks for the administration to vet a new HHS nominee and win Senate approval, some said.

Given the growing concern over recalled peanut products and food safety, healthcare regulatory consultant Steven Grossman said “a new FDA commissioner won’t wait.”

“This is going to expedite the FDA announcement. They want to show that they can bounce back from this setback ... You have to go out there and make an announcement that shows you are unaffected,” said Steve Brozak, head of WBB Securities LLC.

Possible contenders for the FDA post include Joshua Sharfstein, head of Baltimore’s health department; Robert Califf, cardiologist at Duke University; Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steve Nissen; and Susan Wood, former head of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health.

While some analysts said the nominees for FDA and CMS likely already have been chosen and will have to wait for a new HHS nominee to emerge, others said it could allow the administration to consider new names to round out the overall department.

“They will want the new Secretary to at least sign off on the person selected to be the new FDA commissioner, so this is likely to slow it down a bit. However, it also opens up the selection, in terms of the kinds of expertise and diversity that is important,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the advocacy group National Research Center for Women & Families.”

Editing by Vicki Allen