Bush picks EPA chief to lead HHS

Environmental chief has limited experience in health, human services

December 14, 2004|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - President Bush's surprise decision to nominate EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt as secretary of Health and Human Services yesterday opens the way for renewed battles over the administration's health care and environmental policies.

Although he dealt with some health issues as governor of Utah, the job he held before taking over the Environmental Protection Agency post a year ago, Leavitt's experience in the field is limited. Before becoming governor, he was head of an insurance brokerage.

If confirmed, Leavitt would take over an HHS that is working on implementing Bush's controversial Medicare prescription drug plan and facing a crisis in the growing number of Americans without health insurance.

Meanwhile, Leavitt's successor at the EPA must deal with critics in Congress and a wide range of environmental groups who assert that Bush's environmental record is among the worst in history.

"I don't think it matters who the EPA administrator is," said Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program. "All the decisions on the major issues are decided at the White House."

Viewed as a moderate, Leavitt won confirmation to the EPA position with comparative ease, despite Democratic threats to oppose his nomination. He has managed to avoid any major conflict during his EPA tenure, although many environmentalists think he adhered too faithfully to Bush environmental policies and allowed himself to be overruled when he strayed from the party line.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups hoped to make the administration's environmental policies a major issue in this year's presidential election campaign. But the war in Iraq and the economy appeared to take up most of the public's attention.

Confirmation hearings on Leavitt's successor as EPA administrator will provide an opportunity for critics in and out of Congress to focus on Bush's policies without the distraction of a political campaign.

In announcing Leavitt's HHS nomination in the White House, Bush called him "an ideal choice to lead one of the largest departments of the United States government."

"Gov. Leavitt was a leader in welfare reform, resource management and environmental stewardship," Bush said of Leavitt's tenure in Utah. "He improved child welfare services in the state and made strides toward expanding access to health care for children."

Before yesterday's announcement, it was widely thought that the front-runner for the HHS post was Dr. Mark McClellan, who runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs and formerly headed the Food and Drug Administration, both divisions of HHS.

In naming Leavitt to HHS, Bush stressed the nominee's support for his White House agenda.

"In this new term, we will implement the first-ever prescription drug benefit for seniors under Medicare," Bush said. "We will expand federal cooperation with faith-based groups that provide essential services, such as counseling and treatment for addictions. We will continue pursuing the great promise of medical research, always ensuring that the work is carried out with vigor and moral integrity" - an apparent allusion to Bush's concerns about embryonic stem-cell research.

In accepting the nomination, Leavitt told Bush, "I look forward to implementing your vision," which he said included "the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug program in 2006, medical liability reform and finding ways to reduce the cost of health care."

Leavitt's HHS nomination was applauded by Dr. John Nelson, president of the American Medical Association, who said he looked forward to working with Leavitt "to reform the broken medical liability system, improve Medicare and increase access to health care."

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, however, questioned whether Leavitt has sufficient health care credentials to deal with HHS.

He said that, just as a president should not name "a physician to run the Justice Department," the new head of the HHS should be an expert in health care. "You don't have to be a doctor," Benjamin said. "But health care experience is essential."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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