Saturday, January 10, 2009

Frank Torti Tapped As Acting FDA Commissioner

Drum roll, please….The next commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration will be chief scientist and principal deputy commissioner Frank Torti.

According to an email message sent to HHS staff on Friday evening, Torti will become acting FDA commissioner come Inauguration Day, once Andrew von Eschenbach leaves office. Torti will serve under President Barack Obama until a permanent successor is named.

The announcement comes more than a week before the transition will take place. After 300 meetings with department and agency staff, HHS chief of staff Rich McKeown said in the email message, “the next phase of Transition involves the departure of our team on January 20, and the arrival of President-Elect Obama’s team later that day.”

“In order to create a clear path for leadership transition, I am attaching a list of senior leaders who will become the acting heads of their respective agencies and offices (or in some cases, remain as heads of their respective agencies and offices) until the new Administration appoints individuals to various leadership positions.”

HHS secretary Michael Leavitt will leave the department once President-elect Obama takes office. Assistant secretary Charlie Johnson will lead the department until Secretary-designate Tom Daschle is sworn in. “Once Secretary-designate Daschle is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as HHS Secretary, he will assume leadership of HHS,” McKeown’s email says.

Once that happens, Daschle is expected to quickly announce his picks for the heads of each agency. At his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Daschle said that the Obama transition team had been aggressively interviewing candidates, and that he hoped to start building his new leadership within the next few weeks. (We've filled up the ethernet with quite a bit about potential commissioner candidates; you can start here, here and here).

But at least for now, Torti will be The Man at FDA. So what do we know about him? If you attended FDC-Windhover’s FDA/CMS Summit for BioPharma Executives in December, then you heard his keynote address first-hand. But if you missed it, you can check out this story from “The Pink Sheet.”

But we can’t help but point out that we called this one back in June—despite rumblings from Torti’s colleagues at Wake Forest that he would be returning to academia as soon as the next president took office.

In many ways, Torti is the logical pick: under the Federal Vacancies Act, Torti’s position as principal deputy commissioner puts him in line to become acting commissioner once von Eschenbach departs. Having joined the agency less than a year ago, he carries no baggage. And he comes from an academic (not political) background—the perfect profile for a caretaker commissioner.

But as recently as early December, Torti had not yet been approached about the job—at least not to the point, he said, where he would have to sit down with his wife and discuss a longer stay in Washington than was originally planned. But, hey, a lot can happen in a month.

Here are some of the other top-level acting positions announced by HHS:

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will be headed by chief operating officer Charlene Frizzera; acting CMS administrator Kerry Weems will step down;

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention will be led by chief operating officer William Gimson; current director Julie Gerberding will leave office;

The National Institutes of Health will continue to be led by acting director Raynard Kington;

The Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality will continue to be headed by director Carolyn Clancy; and

The Office of the Surgeon General will continue to be held in an acting capacity by Steven Galson (more on his future plans here).

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