A public health system defeated at the hands of ideology

By Susan F. Wood
The Boston Globe
December 17, 2007

The State Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides working families with low-cost health insurance coverage, is now in limbo - on short term extensions by Congress and just vetoed again by the president. This confronts states with difficult choices on how to continue providing health coverage for kids when the funding from Washington just isn't enough.

This latest affront to public health also comes at the same time that the price of birth control pills on colleges campuses has skyrocketed from $5-10 a month to $40 a month or more as an unintended consequence of a recent change in federal law. There is an easy and free technical fix that Congress or the Department of Health and Human Services could make, but this administration does not support allowing companies to sell birth control pills at a discount to colleges, universities, and other safety net programs.

These are just two of the more visible defeats that healthcare has suffered during this administration. At a deeper level, the low priority healthcare gets from President Bush is reflected in his failure to staff important health-related positions with qualified individuals willing to provide science-based advice.

Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services, the lead department that includes all of our national health agencies, lacks a permanent assistant secretary for health, assistant secretary for children and families and a surgeon general. All of these key senior positions are held by temporary appointees, some highly qualified, others not, but none with the ability to truly move us forward by providing sound advice and having the ear of decision-makers.

The Food and Drug Administration lacked a permanent commissioner for over half of the current administration, and currently the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid - which runs the State Children's Health Insurance Program - also has no permanent leader.

Over two years ago, I resigned my post as assistant commissioner of women's health at the FDA because of the agency leadership's disregard for scientific decision-making regarding emergency contraception.

Unfortunately, since then, I have only seen mounting evidence of this administration putting politics before science. Key leadership positions in our health agencies are left vacant for unacceptable time periods or filled with individuals who advance an ideological agenda and show a disregard for scientific integrity. This pattern is troubling because it threatens the objectivity that guarantees the health and safety of American families.

Just a year after my resignation, Dr. Richard H. Carmona resigned as surgeon general. He later revealed that the administration asked him to censor his reporting on embryonic stem cell research, contraception, and the unrealistic proposition of abstinence-only sex education. This position has been vacant for over a year and in October Dr. Steven K. Galson - who was one of those at FDA who initially blocked the provision of emergency contraception over-the-counter - was given the temporary appointment of acting surgeon general.

More recently, President Bush appointed Dr. Susan Orr, an opponent of family planning, as acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs where she is charged with advising on issues regarding population affairs and overseeing the only federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with comprehensive family planning and preventive health services.

By appointing a leader who clearly does not support contraception, the administration is once again neglecting the health needs of millions of Americans, particularly those who are low income and rely on public programs to get access to preventive healthcare, including contraception and pap tests.

To ensure the health of our families we need strong, consistent leaders who value the integrity of science, make decisions on the best available information, and support prevention. Without that leadership, we will not succeed in promoting the health of all Americans. We shouldn't have to wait for a change in presidential leadership.

Susan F. Wood is research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. She served as assistant commissioner for women's health at the Food and Drug Administration from 2000 to 2005 and is advising Hillary Clinton on health issues.