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Bush Administration Dismisses Popular FDA Commissioner Henney

Transition: Despite some signs she wanted to stay in the job, her resignation is accepted. Many believe the decision is because of abortion politics.

January 20, 2001|MARLENE CIMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Commissioner Jane E. Henney of the Food and Drug Administration, under whose stewardship the controversial abortion pill RU-486 was approved, has been told by the Bush administration that she will not be retained.

Henney had submitted her resignation along with those of other political appointees, though she had reportedly expressed a desire to remain in the job. She was told late Thursday that her resignation would be accepted and to leave her office by the close of business Friday.

Henney, who has been popular with the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, forged solid relationships on Capitol Hill. But many believe that she is not staying at the FDA helm because of abortion politics. She ultimately agreed with agency scientists after years of review and an intense national debate to license the abortion-inducing medication.

Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) "talked to [Health and Human Services Secretary-designate] Tommy G. Thompson last week about keeping her, and he was receptive and seemed supportive," said one source familiar with what had happened. "But the Bush people cut him out--and let her go."

Thompson was asked about Henney on Friday during his confirmation hearing.

Dismissing an official with bipartisan and industry support "is not the way to begin. This is truly not the way to begin," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).

Referring to RU-486, Mikulski added, "I hope the dismissal of Jane Henney is not [a future] battleground. We cannot politicize the FDA."

"I think you will find she has broad support" from industry, Kennedy added. "It will be a real challenge" to replace her.

Thompson pointed out that all political appointees had been asked to submit their resignations but that he would review Henney's letter and ensure that the choice of her successor will be "based on merit."

In an exchange about the abortion pill, he also assured senators that the FDA's decision to license it could not be reversed unless there are new questions about its safety.

Unlike such jobs as surgeon general and FBI director, which have set terms typically unaffected by a change of administrations, the FDA commissioner serves at the pleasure of the president.

Henney, who assumed the job in 1998, was the first woman to head the agency. She had worked there earlier under her predecessor, Dr. David A. Kessler, now dean of the Yale University School of Medicine.

Kessler, an appointee of President-elect Bush's father, was retained by President Clinton.

Unlike the high-profile and aggressive Kessler, Henney's style has been low key. Her major mission, she said, was to return the FDA to a science-based agency. She won praise from industry groups and lawmakers for her efforts to implement FDA reform legislation that would hasten the approval of new drugs and medical devices and reduce red tape.

In a poignant e-mail to the agency's 9,000 employees Friday morning, Henney wrote: "Today is the last day that I will have the privilege to serve as your commissioner. . . . Each day was a gift. . . . Keep up the good work and know that my years as serving as your commissioner were a time in my life that I will always treasure deeply."

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