After being pummeled for weeks on Capitol Hill over the president’s budget, Food and Drug Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach has written Congress that the agency needs an immediate infusion of $275 million to ensure that imported foods, drugs and medical devices are safe.
The request was made in a letter to Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, that offers a detailed spending plan for such things as opening new foreign offices, increasing inspections and constructing new databases to track drug hazards.
Presidential appointees rarely diverge so forcefully from the president’s own spending plans, or at least avoid doing so in writing. Dr. von Eschenbach’s action surprised agency observers and was taken as perhaps a sign of the president’s waning influence in the closing months of his presidency.
“In 30 years at the agency, I never saw anything like this happen before,” said William Hubbard, a former deputy F.D.A. commissioner.
On May 1, Mr. Specter wrote Dr. von Eschenbach a letter asking the commissioner to detail how much the agency needed “to protect the public’s health.” In a handwritten aside in the letter’s margin, Mr. Specter wrote, “Andy, I know the situation is extreme. I want to get you financial help now.”
In a May 5 response, Dr. von Eschenbach wrote that he was providing his budget request “without regard to the competing priorities that the agency, the president, and their advisors must consider as budget submissions to the Congress are developed.”
Julie Zawisza, an F.D.A. spokeswoman, said Dr. von Eschenbach was simply responding to a request for information from a senator.
“These resources will accelerate the changes required for F.D.A. to protect and promote the health of all Americans in a rapidly changing world that poses new, emerging threats to the safety of food and medical products,” she said.
In February, the president asked Congress to provide the agency with an allocated budget for fiscal year 2009 of $1.77 billion, which included an increase of $50.7 million over the prior year — not enough even to cover increased salary expenses at the agency.
Since then, Dr. von Eschenbach has endured withering criticism from both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. In the wake of repeated scandals involving tainted drugs and food, there is a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that the F.D.A. needs to conduct far more inspections of foreign drug plants and imported food.
Before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Investigations in April, Dr. von Eschenbach barely got a word in edgewise as Representative John D. Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan who is the chairman of the commerce committee, asked him again and again to state a figure that would allow the F.D.A. to inspect adequately imported food and drugs.
Again and again, Dr. von Eschenbach refused to provide such a figure.
“You cannot do your job, you are not doing your job, how much money do you need to do it?” Mr. Dingell persisted.
Dr. von Eschenbach answered, “That would require me to give you a business plan.”
In the Senate a week earlier, Senator Robert F. Bennett, Republican of Utah, also tried to get Dr. von Eschenbach to specify how much more the agency needed. Dr. von Eschenbach refused to give a number, but he did say that the agency could not efficiently absorb a $375 million increase in its budget next year.
In his letter to Mr. Specter, however, Dr. von Eschenbach said the agency could absorb an additional $275 million in just the next few months.
Last week, Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, who is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the F.D.A., sponsored a measure that would provide the F.D.A. an additional $275 million this year as part of an emergency supplemental appropriations bill largely intended to finance the war in Iraq.
The supplemental bill may be the only way to provide additional financing to the F.D.A., since appropriations bills for next year are likely to stall.
Mr. Kohl’s measure mirrors Dr. von Eschenbach’s letter to Mr. Specter. Both call for $125 million to finance food safety activities; $100 million for medical product and drug safety activities; $40 million for modernizing F.D.A.’s science and work force; and $10 million to upgrade agency facilities and laboratories.
Advocates for increased food and drug oversight said they were thrilled with Dr. von Eschenbach’s letter. “We are one step closer to an F.D.A. that has the resources to serve the needs of American consumers,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Told of Dr. von Eschenbach’s letter to Mr. Specter, Mr. Dingell said he wondered “why the commissioner is beginning to finally recognize what has been painfully obvious to everyone else,” adding, “This is similar in enlightenment to when St. Paul got knocked off his mule by a bolt of lightning on the road to Damascus.”
SOURCE: NY Times