Washington Editor

Looking to fill the vacancy atop the Department of Health and Human Services, President Bush on Monday nominated Mike Leavitt as secretary of the sprawling government office.

The 53-year-old, who has served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency since last year, is charged with replacing Tommy Thompson, who less than two weeks ago said he would leave the position after serving during the first four years of the Bush administration. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 6, 2004.)

Before the succession takes place, though, Leavitt must receive Senate approval. A hearing date is not yet scheduled.

In a White House press conference, Leavitt said he looked forward to the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug program in 2006, medical liability reform and finding ways to reduce health care costs.

President Bush took the opportunity to say that in his next term, the federal government would expand its cooperation with faith-based groups that provide services such as counseling and treatment for addictions. He also pointed to a need for continued efforts to safeguard the country against bioterrorism.

Leavitt said: "I'm persuaded that we can use technology and innovation to meet our most noble aspirations, and not compromise our other values that we hold so dear. So, Mr. President, I'm looking forward to implementing your vision."

Should Leavitt receive Senate confirmation, the three-term governor of Utah who served in that capacity 11 years will take a lead role in all such tasks as head of HHS, which has 60,000 employees and last year operated with a $500 million budget. He said he has big shoes to fill.

"I admire Tommy Thompson greatly," Leavitt said, "and the prospect of following in his service is an enormous challenge."

During his tenure, Thompson presided over efforts to improve preparedness for a bioterrorism attack, increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and reorganized the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to provide prescription drug coverage. Before Leavitt's name surfaced as Thompson's replacement, speculation had centered on Mark McClellan, the latter agency's current administrator. It falls under HHS, as does the FDA, which McClellan previously headed.

Including Thompson's departure, nine cabinet heads have tendered their resignations since Bush won re-election. There are 15 cabinet posts.

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