WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson resigned Friday, warning of a potential global outbreak of the flu and health-related terrorist attacks. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” he said.
Thompson, the eighth member of President Bush’s 15-member Cabinet to resign since the Nov. 2 election, said he tried to leave office a year ago but stayed through Bush’s re-election campaign at the request of the White House.
“It’s time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter in our life,” he said.
News of his departure came not long after Bush introduced former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik as Tom Ridge’s successor to be secretary of homeland security.
McClellan in line to take over
As for Thompson’s successor, the secretary had not yet stepped before the microphones when officials said Mark McClellan, the Medicare chief and brother of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, was Bush’s likely choice to take over the sprawling HHS bureaucracy.
Thompson said McClellan would make “a great secretary.” But he also dropped the names of several other potential candidates, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Thompson listed accomplishments of his tenure but also said he worried about a worldwide flu pandemic in an era when vaccine was in short supply.
Thompson, who served 14 years as governor of Wisconsin, said he planned to explore private-sector jobs and expressed an interest in advancing health care causes across the world. He also did not rule out a return to elective office.
“That’s entirely possible. I happen to love politics. Why would I say no? There’s a Senate seat open,” he said. Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl’s term expires in 2006.
Thompson said he intended to serve until Feb. 4 or until the Senate confirmed his successor.
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Thompson takes a bow
Thompson used the news conference to tout what he said was a long list of accomplishments in his tenure as head of a department that oversees a broad range of health-related issues — not once mentioning the political controversy that accompanied many of them.
Tapped in part because of his welfare reforms while governor of Wisconsin, Thompson quickly found himself focusing more on health than on welfare. He worked with Congress on Medicare reform and found himself in fights over whether HHS agency staffers covered up some of the true costs of Medicare.
The Medicare Modernization Act, passed in late 2003, added a long-sought prescription drug benefit to the federal health program for the elderly. The law will also increase the role of private-sector health care plans in care of senior citizens.
“We touched the third rail of politics,” he said, referring to the landmark legislation, which passed a little more than a year ago.
He also became entangled in the issue of importing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere, as well as repeated crises over the annual flu epidemic and the adequacy of the vaccine supply.
But after five people died when someone mailed several anthrax-laced letters in October 2001, Thompson’s department became focused on bioterrorism.
He set up a “command and control” center in HHS headquarters and lobbied for billions of dollars in federal funding to shore up the sagging U.S. public health system. This included better surveillance of disease outbreaks and a controversial plan to resurrect vaccination against smallpox — an effort that flagged when emergency and health workers declined an outdated and somewhat dangerous immunization.
Safety was also a concern at the Food and Drug Administration, which became mired in a series of scandals involving antidepressants used by children and Merck & Co. Inc.’s withdrawal of its arthritis drug Vioxx. An agency whistle-blower has charged that the agency with paying scant attention to serious risks of some medicines on the market.
Targeting the obese
Thompson’s personal mission was an attack on obesity. Alarmed at the growing number of overweight or obese Americans, which topped 60 percent of the population this year, Thompson himself went on a public diet and encouraged agency staffers to use stairs instead of elevators.
Thompson made a reputation as a delegator rather than a hands-on administrator, but he put his imprimatur on virtually every action by the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, something his predecessors rarely did.
His large hands and clipped speech lent him a pugnacious aspect, but he portrayed himself as a Catholic with working-class roots that made him a friend of the downtrodden.
Thompson earned a law degree in 1966 and operated a small firm near Elroy, Wis. Elected to the state Legislature at age 24, he climbed through Republican ranks before beating a Democratic incumbent for governor in 1986.
Along the way, he married a nurse and had two daughters and a son, now grown.
An avid deer and elk hunter and a water-skier, Thompson upset environmentalists with his support for resuming copper mining in Wisconsin.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.