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National Perspective | GOVERNMENT

Strong Medicine Sought Atop FDA

Clinton weighs Kessler deputy as nominee. Republicans may react negatively.

January 22, 1998|MARLENE CIMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration reportedly is eager to name Dr. Jane E. Henney, vice president of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, to fill the nearly yearlong vacancy created at the Food and Drug Administration by the resignation of its high-profile commissioner, Dr. David A. Kessler.

Among her credentials--which include nearly a decade at the National Cancer Institute--is that she worked for Kessler for two years as one of his closest deputies.

While this makes her appealing to the White House, consumer groups and Democrats, it could hurt her confirmation chances among Senate Republicans, many of whom were angered by Kessler's aggressive, hands-on style.

And observers believe the last thing President Clinton needs is another confirmation fight at a time when he has endured political and philosophical clashes with GOP senators over his personnel choices.

The administration has not said when the FDA nomination will be forthcoming; one official said Wednesday that "no announcement is imminent."

Within government circles, and among those the agency regulates, the FDA job is regarded as one of immeasurable importance. The FDA regulates foods, drugs, cosmetics and medical devices--products accounting for 25 cents of every consumer dollar spent--and the commissioner sets the tone.

Under Kessler, the FDA became especially active. Along with vigorously enforcing its statutes, it pushed a series of initiatives, including rules to speed up drug approvals, revamp food labels and regulate tobacco--some of which infuriated GOP leaders.

"Almost anyone who follows Dr. Kessler will be looked at with great scrutiny," one Senate Democratic aide said. "Dr. Kessler raised the bar so high--the fact that she is associated with him will not help her cause."

Henney could not be reached for comment. But Linda Suydam, a former FDA official who is an associate vice president of the University of New Mexico, disagreed that Henney would face a difficult confirmation.

"She is not David Kessler," Suydam said. "She has her own philosophy and views about how issues at the FDA should be handled. She is in harmony with him on many issues--but not all. He brought a new intensity to the regulatory process; I believe she can bring a greater scientific and technological advancement to the agency."

Reaction within the various industries under FDA oversight appears to be mixed, although no one is willing to speak about her--or any other potential candidates--publicly.

Sources within the drug industry cite "her willingness to listen and her managerial skills," her "strong scientific background" and her "distinguished career."

But sources within the medical-device industry--which complained repeatedly about its treatment under Kessler's FDA--said privately that they would prefer the agency keep Dr. Michael Friedman, the interim commissioner, in the role.

Friedman, who also was brought to the agency by Kessler, is highly regarded but has approached the job with a decidedly low-key style. While well-liked and considered very bright, he is not seen as being especially tough.

Reportedly, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala sought to make Friedman's appointment permanent, a move rebuffed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking minority member of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will consider the nomination. Kennedy is an unabashed champion of Henney's, believing she has a strong public health, pro-consumer background.

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