Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dingell vs. Von Eschenbach = Fireworks

Apparently, House Energy & Commerce chairman John Dingell is unhappy with the Food & Drug Administration.

The Michigan Democrat took issue with FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach's broad plan to overhaul the agency's overseas drug inspection structure to avoid another heparin situation during an E&C Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing. Von Eschenbach was trying to explain that it's not just the number and frequency of inspections by inspectors, but how the inspections are carried out that matter.

Dingell was having none of what he called the commissioner's "toe dancing." Dingell, during his allotted time for question-and-answer, asked von Eschenbach to answer "yes" or "no" to a series of questions. The commissioner started off obliging Dingell but then began getting off track with longer, more verbose answers.

Dingell: I'm going to be honest with you, I'm establishing that you don't have the resources and you can't do your job.

The Energy & Commerce chairman asked if the $11 million for 2008 and $13 million for 2009 allocated for inspections was enough for FDA to inspect the thousands of currently uninspected facilities abroad which import food and drugs into the US every year.

Dingell: Does FDA need more resources to conduct inspections.

Von Eschenbach: Yes, sir. I've asked for more resources.

Dingell then pointed out that the Government Accountability Office estimated it would cost $16 million to inspect only Chinese exporters. So clearly, the $11 million and $13 million were not adequate, right?

Von Eschenbach paused and then answered: I'm telling you that we are putting [the resources] to appropriate use and I have requested additional resources to do more but I'm trying to make the point that in addition to doing more, we have to do it differently.

That set off Dingell, and recalled the Michigan Democrat's days when he skewered witnesses without mercy.

Dingell: You know, I've been in this business a long time, and I've had food and drug commissioners constantly tell me, 'Ooooh, we're going to have a new means of doing this, and we're going to be leaner and meaner.' Turns out that they're leaner and poorer and weaker and less capable of doing their jobs. And all of these promises that I get from commissioners...turn out to be nothing more or less than hooey.

Von Eschenbach: Mr. Chairman, if you allow me to...

Dingell: I didn't fall off the cabbage wagon yesterday. I've been talking to food and drug commissioners for 40 years. And you're not the first fella I've had to skin for not doing his job and coming up here and defending an indefensible situation. I want to maintain my respect for you but I can't maintain my respect for you if you keep toe dancing around the hard facts that curse you with the inability to do your job because you don't have resources.

Then Dingell asked von Eschenbach repeatedly exactly how much money FDA needs to inspect all of the outside facilities up to a US standard.

Dingell: I'm rather tired of all this toe dancing. You cannot do your job, you are not doing your job, how much money do you need to do it?

Von Eschenbach responded that he would have to submit a business plan to appropriately address the question but added that a rough estimate would be the number of total facilities multiplied by $45,000 (the GAO estimate per inspection).

That wasn't good enough for Dingell. "You are carrying water for an administration that has not given you the resources that you need. This committee wants you to have the resources that you need to do the job you have to do to protect the American people." He then brought up the deaths and adverse events related to Baxter's contaminated heparin. And started shouting. "You presided over this because you do not have the resources to do the job that you need to do. How much money do you need to do the job that you are supposed to do?"

Von Eshenbach remained calm and answered again in a way that did not calm Dingell's tone: "Mr. Chairman, I would like to have the resources that would enable us to do a systemic overhaul of the entire process, not a figure that's related to a cost per inspection times the number of facilities."

Dingell repeated again and again, slamming his hand against the desk, the question of exactly how much money FDA needed for the overseas inspections. "You have one fine scandal going on, you have others going on with regards to fish and fish products and you simply are absolutely incapable of addressing your responsibility."

In the end, von Eschenbach gave him the round figure for drugs: 3,000 facilities times $45,000 per site, which is $135 million. However, the sites are inspected once every two years, so the number really is about $70 million. The Republican Senate staff would later say it would take about 500 FDA inspectors overseas.

Dingell ended his fire and brimstone delivery with this: "Commissioner I have no ill will towards you. I have ill will of the most gross sort towards the fact that you come up here and defend a situation that is indefensible and that you are not soliciting the resources that you need to do your job to protect the American people the way the law says you should. And that you are tolerating an administration which is allowing this kind of situation to [continue] because they are too damn tight."

Von Eschenbach, for his part, handled himself well in the face of such a storm from Dingell and remained calm-not an easy thing to do considering the circumstances. But maybe next time, he should just say: $70 million.

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