Washington – Scott Gottlieb, a Westport doctor, on Wednesday calmly defused tough questions from Democrats during the confirmation hearing on his nomination to head the Food and Drug Administration, promising to safeguard the agency’s rigorous review of drugs and medical devices.
He also said he would keep his independence from the White House and oppose President Donald Trump if he maintains vaccinations could cause autism. Trump has tweeted there could be a link.
Gottlieb also said he would not be influenced by any sector of the health care industry, despite his job at New Enterprise Associates, a large venture capital firm that is heavily invested in medical technology and healthcare companies.
“I want to earn and keep the public’s trust,” Gottlieb told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
Democrats on the panel questioned whether Gottlieb can maintain an unbiased, science-based approach in reviewing new drugs.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, said senators had only days to review Gottlieb’s “unprecedented financial entanglements” in the pharmaceutical industry, before Wednesday’s hearing.
“Companies you’ve invested in have invested in 60 drugs that could come to you for approval,” she said.
Republicans on the panel said Gottlieb’s extensive financial ties to the health industry gives him valuable knowledge that would be an asset in running the FDA, an agency that has oversight of more than a fourth of the U.S. economy, including not just pharmaceuticals but medical devices, food safety, cosmetics and other health-related areas.
“I think we are very fortunate that you are willing to do this, with the vast experience that you have,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
In his opening remarks, Gottlieb said he’s seen the importance of the FDA’s work as both a doctor and a patient. He is a cancer survivor, having been successfully treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Gottlieb also said his investments were aimed at improving healthcare in the United States. Some have worked, he said, others didn’t, and many others are still in development.
He also promised to press for swift approvals of generics to provide competition that would drive down drug prices, and that ideas at the FDA would come from the “bottom up,” or from career staffers of the agency.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, introduced Gottlieb to the HELP panel, citing the knowledge he’s gained as a medical doctor who once worked at Stamford Hospital and his previous experience at the FDA, having served as the agency’s deputy commissioner under President George W. Bush.
But Murphy said he told Gottlieb before the hearing that he had not made up his mind whether to support him because he had “serious policy disagreements” with the nominee.
Gottlieb’s wife Allison and his three daughters, two of them twins, sat behind him during the more than three hours of questioning.
“I would want to note that Dr. Gottlieb’s twin daughters’ first grade class in Westport will be watching part of today’s hearing to learn about our work in Washington,” Murphy said. “As the father of an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old, I want you to know that first-graders want nothing more than to hear about the FDA and watch the HELP Committee in action.”
On a more serious note, Murphy later questioned what he called Gottlieb’s “political history,” which he said is “fairly unprecedented” for a nominee.
“It’s very well known that you are one of the most outspoken opponents of the Affordable Care Act. There’s virtually no piece of that legislation that you didn’t have a strong opinion on,” Murphy said. “You have been a political adviser to Republican candidates running for president. The worry about impartiality is certainly connected to the private sector experience, but it’s also connected to your very deep political involvement as well.”
Murphy said he is “encouraged” Gottlieb had spoken and written about the importance of vaccinations. But he said he was concerned that Trump, who picked Gottlieb to head the FDA, is “a frequent critic of vaccinations” and has suggested that he might convene a political commission that would look into the link between vaccines and autism.
Gottlieb said extensive medical research has debunked the theory there is a link and vowed to be immune to pressure from the White House.
“I have a history of not being shy…and speaking truth to power,” Gottlieb said.