Hitting stride after stumbles

SUN JOURNAL

Thompson: Learning from early mistakes, the U.S. health secretary is promoting prevention and has expanded bioterrorism preparations.

April 16, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Tommy G. Thompson has a new passion. The former Wisconsin "governor for life," scourge of welfare as we knew it, well-intentioned blunderer of the 2001 anthrax panic, self-styled anti-bureaucrat now in charge of that Mount Everest of bureaucracies, the Department of Health and Human Services, is talking prevention.

He's saying the same things that public health advocates have said for years - that not smoking and diet and exercise are the key, that a stunning epidemic of obesity is giving rise to an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease.

But the secretary of HHS is so earnest, so obviously caught up in the cause, that people in this audience at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront are coming alive, clapping, laughing, cheering. Of course, it's the choir that this secular preacher, out to save Americans from themselves, is addressing - 1,000 health officials and advocates from around the country gathered yesterday for a "prevention summit." Thompson has called the two-day meeting to fire up his audience about the benefits of preventing disease rather than merely treating it.

He talks about his father's diabetes and his mother's cancer. He unveils his plan to designate towns that embrace the prevention cause as "healthy cities" - a plaudit they can put on highway signs, he says excitedly. He says the United States spent $1.4 trillion on health care in 2000, and if things stay on the track they're on now, the bill for 2011 will double to $2.8 trillion.

"Ladies and gentlemen," says the 61-year-old Thompson, square-jawed and black-eyebrowed, karate-chopping the lectern, "we cannot afford that! Even though we're the most powerful and wealthy country in the world!"

And now he's showing them the pedometers he has been giving out to half the people he meets, bragging that he has walked himself down from 210 pounds to 195. An aide rides Thompson's beloved Harley Davidson more than he does, he says.

"These little walkometers - some people think they're a little foolish," Thompson says. "I wear two of 'em!" One's for backup, he explains: "I want to make darn sure I get through my 10,000 steps a day."

In 14 years as governor of Wisconsin, Thompson became known for boat-rocking leadership, slashing welfare rolls by 90 percent, boosting health coverage for the poor and introducing a program to give low-income Milwaukee parents a choice of private or public schools. His initiatives drew plenty of criticism, but no one doubted who was in charge.

He says his confidence in crafting programs for the underprivileged comes from a childhood in Elroy, Wis., population 1,600, where his only privilege was to help his family get by. At age 5 he started work by sandpapering clean the eggs farmers brought his father's general store to barter for goods. Sometimes he'd break one and find out from the stink that it wasn't fresh, so he was glad to move on to barn-painting at age 12.

His baseball ambitions thwarted when he was cut from the University of Wisconsin team, he found his natural role in politics. After heading Collegians for Goldwater in 1964, he surprised everyone by unseating an incumbent state representative in 1966 and never looked back.

`A tough time'

When President Bush tapped him as health secretary, Thompson landed in the midst of the bureaucracy he had derided as "Disneyland East," overseeing 65,000 employees and a $500 billion budget. By his own account, he didn't like it.

Then came anthrax. His take-charge approach backfired badly when, seeking to reassure the public, he boldly spoke out on subjects he knew little about. He suggested that Florida photo editor Bob Stevens, the first fatality from the anthrax letters, might have gotten the infection by drinking dirty water. In the midst of the panic, he infuriated doctors around the country by filling precious satellite videoconference time with reassuring blather rather than allowing experts to convey desperately needed medical information.

"I really had a tough time my first year," Thompson admits. "Everybody knows it. ... I didn't like the checking with everybody that I didn't have to do when I was governor."

As governor, he says, he could wake up with an idea and have people working on it by lunchtime - "from idea to implementation in a couple of hours." In Washington, "I found out you can't do that. You still can come up with a great idea. But you have to vet it throughout this huge bureaucratic machine called the Department of Health and Human Services. And if you are able to get some consensus, you have to go over to this supergod - and I didn't know we had supergods in our society - and that's OMB [the Office of Management and Budget].

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