The Senate Wednesday easily confirmed Mike Leavitt as secretary of health and human services, a position that will put him at the heart of national debates over health care costs and drug safety.
Leavitt, the outgoing Environmental Protection Agency chief and a former Utah governor, has a reputation for being both conservative and innovative. He had bipartisan support and was confirmed by a voice vote.
“The bottom line — he’ll get the job done,” said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has known Leavitt for some 30 years.
The Senate by voice vote also confirmed Jim Nicholson, the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and former Republican Party chairman, to be secretary of veterans affairs.
Leavitt succeeds Tommy Thompson
President Bush nominated Leavitt to succeed Tommy Thompson to head a sprawling department that includes many programs and agencies including Medicare, Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health. Leavitt will also oversee welfare policy and some early childhood programs.
Leavitt in his confirmation hearings last week advocated major but unspecified changes to improve efficiency in Medicaid, the joint state-federal health program for the nation’s poor.
But he said he did not know of any administration plan to transform the program into a block grant to the states — a move that has been widely speculated about, but one that would face significant skepticism on Capitol Hill.
Leavitt’s confirmation was nearly delayed because of the long-standing dispute over drug importation legislation. Rather than blocking Leavitt, backers of the bill agreed to let the nomination go ahead in exchange for a promise of a hearing on the drug import bill sponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
House drug import bill wins supporters
In addition, several freshman senators, including three Republicans, on Wednesday announced they had signed onto a bipartisan House bill that would allow imports of U.S. approved drugs from Canada and two dozen other countries.
An earlier version of the bill passed the House but must be considered again in this new Congress.
Another big issue facing Leavitt will be drug safety and FDA reform, an issue that has been highlighted after Merck & Co. pulled its painkiller Vioxx from the market.
Leavitt will also be responsible for implementing the Medicare prescription drug law enacted in 2003.