In a moment remarkable for its symbolism, six former Food and Drug Administration commissioners last month sat together on a stage and argued that their former agency needs more autonomy from Washington bureaucracy. The solution: make the FDA independent and maybe give it a cabinet seat at the White House, too.
The idea has been kicked around a few times over the years, but never gained traction. Yet the panel discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival has refocused attention on the notion that the FDA — and by extension, the American public — would be better off if the agency’s status was elevated. And the suggestion carried still more weight since the former commissioners worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Right now, the FDA is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, which adds a big layer of officialdom between the agency and the White House. And in a legislative holdover, the FDA budget is overseen by House and Senate agriculture appropriations committees, which may not always be familiar with matters surrounding cutting-edge medical developments.
“An independent agency could work directly with Congress and the White House on a one-to-one basis and create dialogue that could lead to policy changes,” Andrew von Eschenbach, who was FDA commissioner from 2006 through 2009, and is now president Samaritan Health Initiatives, a think tank, told me. “This would put FDA in a much better position to execute its mission.”
To what extent the notion can become reality is uncertain, but it’s worth considering.
Here’s one reason. In December 2011, former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA and refused to allow an emergency contraceptive pill to be sold over the counter to young teens. This was the first time the HHS took such a step, but it was politically expedient because it allowed the Obama administration to avoid a contentious battle over birth control during a presidential election season.
The decision smacked of malfeasance, but reflected a long-running battle between politicians and scientists over whether the “morning after” pill should be available without a prescription. The Bush administration initially resisted such a move but later allowed over-the-counter access to women 18 and older. In 2009, the Obama administration lowered the age to 17 in response to a federal court order.
Of course, it’s true that even an independent FDA would still remain beholden to the White House, which suggests the potential for political interference will always exist. This is a fact of life in Washington. But cabinet-level status may confer an added benefit, because whoever heads the FDA would, presumably, have more opportunity for direct contact with administration decision makers.
“It may not entirely change the political dynamic, but I think it would be an improvement, because it could make it more difficult to meddle,” said Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner, who heads the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a think tank that is funded, in part, by industry. “You want to make it possible for a commissioner to stand firm and do the right thing,” added Pitts who wasn’t at the Aspen conference.
Toward that end, the top FDA job might also be structured so that there is a fixed term of say, six years, that doesn’t directly overlap with a president’s tenure. Yes, the FDA chief would still be a political appointee, but this approach may encourage a midterm president to find the best candidate, rather than use the appointment as a way to pay a political debt following an election.
Another reason to consider a push for independence is the budget process. Since FDA is part of HHS, its budget is vulnerable to cuts and changes — even before Congress gets to decide what to leave in and what to leave out. By elevating the agency to cabinet-level status, the FDA presumably could have more sway over resources.
“In a way, the FDA has always been a stepchild,” said Ira Loss of Washington Analysis, a consulting firm that tracks the pharmaceutical industry and regulatory policy. “And it often gets trapped in the bureaucracy.”
The challenge is to make a good case for independence.
Right now, the odds seem long. A new administration would have to be convinced to make the idea a priority. And persuading Congress, which seems perennially critical of the FDA and is currently crafting legislation to remake some agency functions, would be a challenge. To speed things along, von Eschenbach noted that a few former commissioners may now consider drafting a joint white paper.
To be sure, there will always be bureaucratic hurdles. That’s the nature of government. But any effort that can recalibrate the balance between bureaucracy and resources should be pursued. The FDA deserves a seat at the table where decisions are made.