WASHINGTON — Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Wednesday made his 19th appearance before Congress, this time testifying on his own behalf.
The 44-year-old doctor, investor, and conservative policy wonk, nominated to run the Food and Drug Administration, appeared before a Senate panel for a confirmation hearing, telling lawmakers that he would be an “impartial and passionate advocate for public health.”
“We need to make sure we’re getting the most bang for our regulatory buck,” Gottlieb said in his opening statement. “That means being cognizant of risks and being sure that we’re not adding to consumer costs without improving consumer safety.”
Gottlieb, who formerly served as a senior advisor at the FDA under George W. Bush, has spent much of his time working for venture capital and investment banking firms that invest in biomedical startups, as well as his own consulting firm. He has also repeatedly testified as an expert on the industry before Congress.
In addition, he’s served on the boards of numerous pharmaceutical companies, large and small — experience that has been welcomed by the drug industry but that has raised questions among critics who believe he is too cozy with the private sector.
Although several Democratic senators raised questions about Gottlieb’s ability to avoid conflicts of interest from his extensive work and investments, most did so in a friendly manner. He was also questioned about his financial ties to companies in the vaping business. There is a split in the public health community between those who view e-cigarettes as a good way to reduce smoking, and those who are more concerned that teenagers who use flavored e-cigarettes will later graduate to cigarettes.
Gottlieb said he was committed to preventing kids from starting to smoke.
“I’m not going to countenance a rise in adolescence smoking rates in this country under my watch,” he said.
Gottlieb has said he is proud of his experience as an entrepreneur, and has vowed to recuse himself from issues related to drug companies.
Senator Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said she believed the panel need to slow down the vetting process, to give time to review Gottlieb’s “unprecedented financial entanglements in the industries he would regulate as commissioner.”
She also asked Gottlieb to ensure the FDA would exercise independent, science-based decision-making, and expressed doubt that, in the Trump administration, such a thing would be possible.
But Gottlieb promised that under his watch that would be his goal.
“I know what’s at stake here,” in his opening statement. “People’s lives are literally on the line when it comes to the decisions FDA makes, its oversight, and its enforcement of Congress’s laws.”
Gottlieb also said that his first priority as FDA commissioner would be finding ways to fight the nation’s opioid crisis.
“The opioid epidemic is having staggering human consequences,” Gottlieb said. “It’s going to require dramatic action. I hope the Senate confirms me to take on this challenge.”
He called for re-evaluating the current framework for how the FDA develops alternatives to opioid drugs, and also looking at medical devices and medically assisted therapy to help people struggling with addiction.
Much of the Democratic invective at the hearing was reserved for President Trump and Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services. Sen. Bernie Sanders noted areas on which Gottlieb disagrees with Trump, and asked Gottlieb why on earth Trump nominated him.
Gottlieb, usually straightforward, declined to answer.