Justine Coleman and Alex Gangitano, The Hill, August 8, 2021
President Biden has yet to nominate a permanent head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at a time when the government is navigating a surge in COVID-19 cases from the delta variant.
It’s unclear why the post remains vacant more than six months into Biden’s presidency, but some experts suggest politics may be getting in the way.
Some Democratic senators are pushing back on the prospects of acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock being named to the permanent role, but health care experts are warning that the administration needs to fill the position immediately.
Biden selected Woodcock, a longtime FDA regulator, to serve as the acting commissioner in January but has since received pushback, including from senators and anti-opioid advocates on that move.
Several Democratic senators have voiced opposition to Woodcock, citing her time at the FDA when opioid painkillers were approved, later contributing to an epidemic that has left many Americans dead.
“I continue to have concerns about Dr. Woodcock as a potential permanent FDA Commissioner, especially given the role she played in approving and labeling opioid-based medications,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. “That’s why I’ve called on President Biden to put forward an FDA commissioner who will act independently from the industry that he or she regulates.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a centrist, has also called on the administration to prioritize nominating a different commissioner, citing concerns about the opioid epidemic and the FDA’s controversial approval of the Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm.
“Dr. Woodcock is not the right person to lead the FDA,” he wrote in a June letter to Biden.
Two months earlier, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) vowed to oppose a potential Woodcock nomination.
Her prospects have not improved over the summer.
In a statement, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called for a “permanent, qualified, trusted” commissioner to address the pandemic and opioid epidemic. Without specifically mentioning Woodcock, he said, “The FDA needs a leader who will learn from the agency’s past mistakes to ensure it never makes them again.”
Other names floated for commissioner include Zeke Emanuel, former health policy adviser in the Obama administration and an architect of the 2010 Affordable Care Act; Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization; Katherine Luzuriaga, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science; and Florence Houn, who worked at the FDA during multiple administrations.
Some experts emphasized that it’s more important to get the right nominee than to rush one through the Senate.
“It’s taken the administration rather a long time to make a decision,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “It makes it even more important that they make the right decision, not just be pushed into making a decision in the next X number of weeks or months.”
Zuckerman called for the Biden administration to prioritize choosing a nominee with a “very strong public health perspective,” noting that Woodcock has become an “untenable” candidate amid the opposition and “controversial” decisions at the agency during her tenure, which dates back to 1986.
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