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THOMPSON DECLARES HIS INDEPENDENCE

WASHINGTON — Any question about why Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson might not have been a good fit in President Bush’s second-term Cabinet was answered in his moment of resignation.Thompson, 63, displayed the independent streak that has characterized his tenure when he issued a blunt warning …

WASHINGTON — Any question about why Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson might not have been a good fit in President Bush’s second-term Cabinet was answered in his moment of resignation.
Thompson, 63, displayed the independent streak that has characterized his tenure when he issued a blunt warning that the nation’s foods remain vulnerable to terrorism.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do,” Thompson said at a news conference Friday announcing his resignation after four years in the job. Thompson said that he had fretted over the threat “every single night.”

Barely a day after Thompson’s remarks, Bush dismissed Thompson’s alarm while not disputing the danger. “We’re a large country with all kinds of avenues where somebody can inflict harm,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to protect the American people. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

While surprising in its candor and tone, Thompson’s remarks were emblematic of the distance he has sometimes maintained from the Bush White House, even as he was helping to accomplish one of its signature achievements — passage of the Medicare prescription drug law a year ago.

A popular four-term governor of Wisconsin, Thompson arrived in Washington four years ago with a record for innovative solutions on welfare and other issues.

Thompson was in the spotlight on allowing the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries. Americans pay the highest prices in the world for medicines. Thompson signaled recognition of the political force behind the drive for lower prices when he commented in May that importation from Canada was inevitable.

“I think it’s coming,” Thompson said, adding that he would recommend Bush not stand in the way of Canadian imports.

Such independence earned Thompson praise from political adversaries of the president. “A straight shooter,” with “good ideas and a common touch,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

The tasks of implementing the new Medicare law, taking on drug costs and a host of other serious challenges will fall to Thompson’s successor at HHS. Mark McClellan, a physician and economist from Texas, has been widely reported as Bush’s choice.

McClellan has displayed deep loyalty and close ties to the Bush White House in a series of administration jobs. Most recently, he was head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the national health programs for seniors and the poor. A former White House adviser, McClellan came to the programs after heading the Food and Drug Administration. He is the brother of White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

In his last two jobs, Mark McClellan has been the administration’s point man in the battle against drug importation. He has been a leading proponent of the argument that safety would be threatened by such imports — a position that put him in agreement with the big pharmaceutical manufacturers.

McClellan and the Bush administration argue that the drug companies should raise prices in other countries in order to lower them here, an argument that hasn’t had success abroad or with the drugmakers.

McClellan has been criticized not just by the administration’s opponents but by some Republicans who see public pressure on drug prices as a political reality that demands a more accommodating response. McClellan is part of a task force that is to report this week on whether drug importation can be accomplished safely.