FDA HEAD CRITICIZES PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE PLAN



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Last Updated

20 Sep 2003

Source: Washington Post, September 20, 2003

FDA Head Criticizes Public Health Service Plan

By Tania Branigan, Washington Post Staff Writer

The head of the Food and Drug Administration, in a letter that became public Wednesday, has warned that plans to transform the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Corps would damage its morale and effectiveness.

Mark B. McClellan, the FDA's commissioner, joined the chorus of criticism over the far-reaching changes in the letter he sent last month to his boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

The proposals, announced by Thompson in July, are intended to ensure that by the end of next year every member of the 5,500-person force of health professionals could be immediately deployed in an emergency. Currently, 30 percent are considered ready to go on short notice.

The reorganization would also unify management of the corps, which has long been decentralized because its personnel serve in several HHS agencies.

HHS spokesman Craig Stevens stressed that the proposals are still "a work in progress." He said that Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, commander of the corps, had discussed the issue with McClellan and will take into account the concerns of all relevant officials.

McClellan could not be contacted for comment.

Corps personnel fill various specialized roles at the FDA, including those as dieticians, veterinarians and other scientists.

Thompson and Carmona have said the 5,500-strong force must be enlarged and must become more flexible to ensure that it can cope with emergencies and help medically underserved communities. The HHS secretary has budgeted $2 million toward the transformation this year and asked for another $5 million for fiscal 2004.

The Commissioned Officers Association, which represents 70 percent of corps personnel, has said that the plan could prompt a mass exodus. It is particularly concerned about the timetable for introducing new fitness standards and promotion procedures.

The House Committee on Government Reform agreed to hold a hearing on the issue after its ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), described the changes as "unwise and unfair." No date has been set.

In his letter, McClellan stressed that he supports much of the plan for transforming the corps but is concerned about the speed with which new deployment standards would be introduced and the impact they would have on people with family commitments. He also argued that fitness standards should be job-specific, not universal.

He added: "I am concerned that . . . corps and civilian morale as well as agency and PHS effectiveness could be seriously negatively impacted by the imposition of standards such as those proposed."

He also warned that the corps would "lose the ability to recruit and maintain the services of many individuals . . . especially those with bioterrorism and counter-bioterrorism expertise," if the changes were implemented as planned.

McClellan added that the key ideas he had discussed with HHS officials are not reflected in the plans and that the proposals differ significantly from the recommendations offered by a task force appointed to reconsider the promotion process.