- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Senate approved President Obama’s pick to lead the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday, easily overcoming loud protests from lawmakers who used the nomination to criticize the agency’s response to the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic that is ravaging the U.S.

Robert. M. Califf was confirmed, 89-4, with support from powerful Republicans, even as the Senate descends into a bitter feud over how and when to replace late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Mr. Obama had selected Dr. Califf, a cardiologist and current No. 2 at the FDA, in September, and he breezed through a committee vote in January.

“He has made clear he will continue to prioritize independence at the FDA as the commissioner and always put science over politics,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee.

Yet several lawmakers raised questions about his long tenure at Duke University, where he led clinical research center that received a large share of its funding from the pharmaceutical industry.

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, also questioned his work as a consultant to drug companies, saying he wouldn’t rein in skyrocketing costs, while others said he was ill-equipped to rein in and regulate the approval of painkiller drugs that are fueling the opioid scourge across America.

Though he missed Wednesday’s vote, Mr. Sanders expressed his “disappointment” with Dr. Califf’s confirmation from the campaign trail in South Carolina.

“At a time when one in five Americans cannot afford to pay for the medications that have been prescribed to them, we have got to do everything we can to lower the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs,” he said.

Sens. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, were the most vocal protesters, using up floor time with heart-rending stories about families who were torn apart by the opioid crisis.

They said Dr. Califf’s industry ties made him a poor choice to “shake up” the agency, which they accused of rubber-stamping new painkillers without the input of outside experts and erring in its decision to approve use of OxyContin by children as young as 11.

“This is not personally about Dr. Califf,” Mr. Manchin said in floor debate. “It’s about the culture that he comes from, and the year that he’s been [at the FDA] as the number-two, and what has happened at that period of time.”

Others said they were impressed by Dr. Califf’s pledge to reform the FDA’s approach to opioids, including the use of warning labels and requiring outside experts to approve opioids that do not have abuse-deterrent properties.

President Obama set aside $1 billion in his fiscal 2017 budget request to fight the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic — a key priority for Senate Republicans locked in reelection battles in New Hampshire, Ohio and other states.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican who is fighting for her seat, voted against Dr. Califf, joining Mr. Markey, Mr. Manchin and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat.

The Senate is set to take up a bipartisan bill, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, that would help states monitor prescribing practices, expand the number of sites where parents can dispose of unneeded painkillers and distribute more naloxone — a treatment that can reverse the effects of an overdose — to law enforcement agencies and first responders.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican, also filed legislation Wednesday that would allow doctors to partially fill prescriptions for opioids, so that fewer excess pills circulate.

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