Medical Device Daily Washington Writer

Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told President Barack Obama in a letter last Thursday they were committed to getting a health reform bill passed and enacted this year, despite no longer having Tom Daschle at the head of the effort.

Kennedy and Baucus said they were "saddened" by Daschle's decision to withdraw from the nomination process.

The two lawmakers said they continued to believe that Daschle was "highly qualified" to hold the position of secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Daschle stepped aside on Feb. 3 after a draft Senate Finance Committee report was leaked to the media on Jan. 30 disclosing that he had failed to pay $128,000 in taxes for a limousine car service and consulting fees and also had inadvertently claimed deductions for ineligible donations.

Daschle, who Obama had nominated on Dec. 11, 2008 to serve as the secretary for HHS, submitted amended filings on Jan. 2 for 2005, 2006, and 2007 and paid the back taxes in addition to more than $11,000 in interest. He reportedly paid an additional $6,000 last week to the IRS.

Daschle, who served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, also was under fire for receiving about $200,000 in fees for speeches at health care industry group gatherings.

He also reportedly earned $2.1 million from his work as a "strategic adviser" for the Washington law firm Alston & Bird.

However, Daschle was not a registered lobbyist, which is someone who spends at least 20% of billable time for a client doing direct lobbying activities with lawmakers or administration personnel.

Baucus and Kennedy said in their Feb. 5 letter to the president that they were confident that Obama would "swiftly choose an exceptionally qualified and dedicated alternate nominee" for the HHS chief's job.

"We must act now," the senators said, noting that the ranks of the uninsured are growing larger each day.

"We have a moral duty to ensure that every American can get quality healthcare," the lawmakers said. "We must act to contain the growth of health care costs to ensure our economic stability, to help American businesses deal with the healthcare challenge and to make sure that we are getting our money's worth. Incremental efforts will no longer suffice, and we cannot afford to wait any longer," the senators added, stating that they remained "certain" that enacting comprehensive healthcare reform "can be accomplished this year."

Parlor games revived for HHS chief

After Daschle's exit last Tuesday as the HHS secretary-designate, the rumor mill was back in motion with names spinning around Washington as potential replacements, such as Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1998 to 2001.

Dean, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and ran for president in 2004, also has been speculated to be offered the FDA commissioner's job.

The news had barely sunk in about Daschle's withdrawal when the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued a statement urging Obama to nominate Stabenow to fill the HHS job, calling her "another strong and consistent advocate for universal healthcare."

The Michigan Democrat, who has a background in social work, is "well-positioned to take the helm" of HHS, the women's group said, calling the agency "critical to women and families."

With the nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) as secretary of the Commerce Department, the 14 filled cabinet departments will be headed by 11 men and three women, NOW pointed out.

"Adding a highly-qualified woman, such as Sen. Stabenow, would increase the representation of half the population at the cabinet table, while adding health care and human needs expertise to HHS," the group said.

NOW and other women's groups also have been urging Obama to put a woman at the head of the FDA, such as Susan Wood, who quit the agency in 2005 as its director of the Office of Women's Health in protest over the appearance that the FDA was dragging its feet on making a decision about emergency contraception.

Public health bill seeks to create jobs

Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), Lee Terry (R-Nebraska) and Edolphus Towns (D-New York) last week introduced the Strengthening America's Public Health System Act, intended to help states and municipalities create new jobs in the public health field, analyze local public health problems and take prompt action to address them.

The U.S. public health system has greatly improved since the mid-1990s but is "struggling to keep pace with the many threats families face on a daily basis," Baldwin said, noting the current salmonella outbreak involving peanut and peanut butter products.

"We must provide our public health personnel with all the tools they need to keep people safe," he said.

The bill will enhance the nation's public health capacity by strengthening its core science infrastructure and ensuring a seamless, rapid flow of information, Terry asserted.

From an economic standpoint, the legislation will create much-needed jobs, Towns added.

"With the recent economic downturn affecting our entire country, and particularly New York, it is not only prudent but it is imperative for me to champion legislation that will revive our job market," he said.

The legislation, if enacted, would enhance existing programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta) to help public health institutions identify and monitor the occurrence of infectious and other diseases of public health concern, track the effects of contaminated food and water, and address other public health issues.

The bill also is intended to provide the funding necessary to hire and train professional staff to improve the detection of new and emerging infectious disease threats.

With improved capacity, public health labs will be better able to detect antimicrobial resistant infections and identify and respond to disease outbreaks, the lawmakers argued.

The bill is targeted at improving electronic disease reporting by state and local health departments and public health laboratories and providing for advanced training for key elements of the public health workforce.

In addition, the bill authorizes, for the first time, a process for determining a list of diseases and conditions to be reported to federal, state or local health officials.