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CDC resignation, and FDA-USDA joint effort, face new HHS chief

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With less than two days on the job, newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex M. Azar was forced to accept the sudden resignation of the agency’s chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week, in the midst of questions about tobacco stocks she purchased that posed a potential conflict of interest.

Azar accepted the resignation of Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, citing “complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all her duties as the CDC director. Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period,” according to an HHS statement.

“After advising Secretary Azar of both the status of the financial interests and the scope of her recusal, Dr. Fitzgerald tendered, and the Secretary accepted, her resignation. The Secretary thanks Dr. Fitzgerald for her service and wishes her the best in all her endeavors.”

The 71-year-old former Georgia Department of Health chief told reporters she felt she had to resign because her investment issues had become a distraction. “I want the CDC to do well, and I don’t want the fact that I have two investments that are too difficult to sell to interfere with what the CDC is doing,” she said. “I’m very sad personally.”

The day before her resignation, Politico reported that Fitzgerald had traded tobacco stocks within a week after taking the top post at the CDC last July. According to various recent media accounts, Congressional officials have become concerned about her financial investments and the potential conflicts of interests, and her inability to testify in some cases.

Politico reported on Jan. 30 that Fitzgerald had bought shares in Japan Tobacco, Inc. shortly after she was named CDC director. It was also reported that she owned stocks in five other tobacco companies before she became the CDC director.

Japan Tobacco sells cigarette brands such as Winston, Camel and Benson & Hedges. The CDC as an agency warns against tobacco use.

On an interim basis, Azar appointed the CDC’s principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat, as the agency’s acting director, assuming leadership at a time when the CDC is battling the worst flu epidemic in nearly a decade. Fitzgerald, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was named CDC head last summer.

Vice President Mike Pence swore in Azar, 50, just days after the former drug company executive was confirmed by a Senate vote of 55-43. He replaces Tom Price, who was forced to resign in September 2017 in the face of multiple federal investigations into his use of expensive private and military jets for official and personal trips.

Azar assumes leadership of the $1.1 trillion agency at a time when a number of senior HHS executives have left or will be leaving the agency, an unusually high turnover for an agency in the first year of a new administration. Also facing his agency is the opioid addiction ravaging many rural communities.

He was most recently the president of Lilly USA, a unit of the global drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co. based in Indiana. President Trump has tasked him with reining in drug prices, accusing drug firms of “getting away with murder.” Azar is a graduate of Yale Law School and served as a law clerk for former Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In addition, Azar faces how to administer the Affordable Care Act, which Trump and many Congressional Republications want to eliminate. More than $1 trillion a year is spent on health coverage for about one-third of all Americans.

Also last week, the Food and Drug Administration – administered by HHS – announced a formal agreement with the USDA to collaborate on efforts to “increase interagency coordination on the efficiency and effectiveness of food safety and new biotechnology activities.”

An example of what this means was spelled out in a four-page statement issued by the USDA: “When a facility, such as a canned soup facility, produces both chicken noodle soup and tomato soup, (the process) is currently subject to regulations by both agencies. The agreement tasks both government organizations with identifying ways to streamline (the) regulation and reduce inspection inefficiencies, while steadfastly upholding safety standards for dual-jurisdiction facilities,” the statement outlined, in part.

It appears the two will attempt to eliminate redundant services and possibly cut back or reassign positions that do the same jobs. Azar and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue say they will come up with a plan.

An estimated 52 percent of the HHS $1.1 trillion budget covers 55.5 million Medicare recipients, and 39 percent goes for nearly 70 million people on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.