Interim Heads at Federal Health Agencies Lack Authority, Long-Term Focus, NPR Reports
NPR's "Morning Edition" reported today on the leadership vacancies at the FDA, NIH and CDC. Dr. William Roper, former CDC director and current dean of the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, said that although acting administrators can assume daily operations of the agencies, longer-term strategic initiatives "don't get done" without permanent leaders. Acting directors "may not focus on the future" or carve out time to meet with legislators to generate support for projects that "they won't be around to carry out." Roper noted that although at one time people stayed in agency leadership jobs for 10 to 15 years, he is "persuaded that we'll never see that in my lifetime again" because of the "stress and strain" accompanying the positions. If people "find it difficult" to serve more than a few years, vacancies "could remain common," Roper said (Silberner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 3/12).
Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the FDA under former Presidents Bush and Clinton and current dean of the Yale School of Medicine, said in an interview with "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards that interim directors of "key" public health agencies "don't have the authority they need." Kessler said, "There is no way you can take on the tough issues without having permanent leadership. First of all, it takes time to get used to the agency, and an interim is there only for months or a year and is really maintaining the status quo. ... I think the public just assumes that these agencies are doing their job, and [it is] only when a crisis happens and there's no head that the public focuses on it." Commenting on why federal health leaders in past decades had longer average tenure, Kessler said that agency heads now face greater intensity and pressure from a "vast array of industries." According to Kessler, "A permanent director's job is to put their body in between that whole outside world, all that political pounding, and the people at the agency who do their work." Kessler said that he "understands it's hard to find the right person to lead" and that the qualifications required of potential candidates yields "a very small pool." However, Kessler said that "the job of the White House now ... is to find the best scientist who cares about one thing and one thing only: the public health." Both segments will be available online in RealPlayer Audio after noon ET (Edwards, "Morning Edition," NPR, 3/12).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.