City to launch national search for health chief

March 15, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown and Kelly Brewington | Matthew Hay Brown and Kelly Brewington, and

The city will launch a national search to replace Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the health commissioner tapped by President Barack Obama yesterday to serve as the No. 2 official at the nation's principal food and drug watchdog.

"President Obama chose an experienced advocate with a proven background in health policy," Mayor Sheila Dixon said after Obama announced Sharfstein's appointment as deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. "The people of the United States are fortunate to have Dr. Sharfstein looking out for their best interests."

The Harvard-trained pediatrician will serve under Dr. Margaret A. "Peggy" Hamburg, the former New York City health chief whom Obama nominated yesterday to head the FDA.

"Dr. Sharfstein has been recognized as a national leader for his efforts to protect children from unsafe over-the-counter cough and cold medications," Obama said yesterday in his weekly radio address. "And he's designed an award-winning program to ensure that Americans with disabilities had access to prescription drugs."

Hamburg and Sharfstein take over a troubled agency criticized most recently for what critics have called an inadequate response to the salmonella outbreak that contaminated peanut butter in hundreds of products, reviving widespread calls for reform of the way the federal government safeguards the nation's food supply.

"In recent years, we've seen a number of problems with the food making its way to our kitchen tables," Obama said. "In 2006, it was contaminated spinach. In 2008, it was salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes. And just this year, bad peanut products led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives - a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job."

Obama also announced a "food safety working group" that would bring together Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials to advise him "on how we can upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century."

In a letter to friends and colleagues, Sharfstein said yesterday that he would be leaving the Health Department at the end of next week to take the FDA job. Dixon, who had anticipated the departure of the official she called a "superstar" within her administration, said Assistant Health Commissioner Olivia Farrow would take over as interim commissioner while the city searches for a permanent replacement.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who preceded Sharfstein as Baltimore's health commissioner, said Sharfstein's successor should be a passionate advocate who can work with numerous city agencies.

"You have got to be willing to look across services, not just health, if you want to affect issues," said Beilenson, who now heads the Howard County Health Department.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who worked closely with Sharfstein on an anti-crime program run out of the Health Department, said the city needs "a Josh Sharfstein clone."

"Beyond being smart and a good doctor, we need someone who is committed to a whole lot of action," he said. "You have to be down in the dirt and personally involved."

Sharfstein, who came to Baltimore in 2005, emerged as a candidate for the FDA after leading an assessment of the agency for the Obama transition team. As city health chief, he convinced the FDA there was little evidence cold and cough medicines worked in children younger than 4, created a 24-hour system to ensure access to prescription drugs during the transition to Medicare Part D and led a ban on the use of lead in candy, cosmetics and jewelry sold in the city.

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