With today’s 18-5 vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) to send Stephen Hahn’s nomination to the full U.S. Senate, the oncologist who currently serves as chief medical officer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center is just a step away from being confirmed as the next FDA commissioner. 

In opening the meeting for the vote, HELP Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted that in the 28 days since President Donald Trump officially nominated him to the post, Hahn has met with nearly all the members of the HELP Committee, answered hundreds of questions from senators and survived a HELP confirmation hearing.  

Alexander cited Hahn’s extensive medical and research experience and called him a proven leader in large health systems. Backing up his assessment, Alexander submitted 13 letters from nearly 80 colleagues, researchers, and patient and professional organizations supporting Hahn’s confirmation. He also mentioned that the past five FDA commissioners – from the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations – all endorsed the nominee. 

“All around, he’s exactly the type of nominee we should want to lead an agency as important as the FDA,” Alexander said, adding that, as an oncologist, Hahn knows first-hand the importance of quickly bringing new life-saving drugs and devices through the regulatory process.  

Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), one of the few to vote against Hahn’s nomination, had a different take on the candidate. “I’m just not convinced that Dr. Hahn is the right pick for the job,” she said, noting the FDA’s responsibility to safeguard the nation’s food supply and protect Americans from faulty devices, contaminated drugs and “skyrocketing prescription drug prices.” 

Murray acknowledged she “has been skeptical about his lack of government experience and his public record on FDA policy issues or his experience in leading an organization as complex as the FDA.” But the “big red flag” for her, she said, was Hahn’s refusal to commit to implementing a strong policy to remove flavored nontobacco e-cigarettes that haven’t undergone FDA review from the market. She submitted a letter from the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids that urged the Senate not to approve an FDA candidate until Trump follows through on an earlier pledge to ban such products. 

Although he voted for Hahn, Sen. Mitch Romney (R-Utah) expressed similar concerns, agreeing with Murray that Hahn must be committed to making decisions based on science and data rather than ideologies. As FDA commissioner, Hahn must communicate how his decisions are being made and carried out, Romney insisted, adding that if Hahn takes an action contrary to his own view, he should clearly state that he’s being pressured to do so or resign. 

Until the Senate confirms Hahn’s nomination, Brett Giroir is serving as the acting commissioner at the FDA, in addition to fulfilling his assistant secretary of health duties at the Department of Health and Human Services. Giroir took over the temporary FDA mantle from Ned Sharpless, who stepped down at the end of October when he reached the 210-day limit on serving in an acting capacity.  

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