On Tuesday, the Senate approved Dr. Robert Califf as President Biden’s nominee to be FDA commissioner. One senator voted in favor of the nomination, while several Democrats opposed it and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) was absent as he recovers after a stroke.
While Sens. Senators. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins, R.Maine, Lisa Murkowski and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. voted against the administration by voting against Califf, Republican Sens. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) withdrew his vote and voted present in order to join Lujan.
California was previously the president of the Obama administration, from February 2016 to January 2017. He has been criticized for failing to take appropriate measures to address the opioid crisis. Democrats were the ones who asked Califf some of the most difficult questions during his December confirmation hearing.
“Why didn’t you change the oxycontin labels when you were the FDA’s chief in 2016?” In one of many contentious exchanges, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) asked for the hearing.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. challenged Califf during the hearing about his ties with the pharmaceutical industry. He noted that he is one the most recent examples of ex-FDA commissioners accepting a job or board post at a pharmaceutical company.
“At a moment when the American people are outraged at the high price of prescription drugs… what kind comfort can you give the American people when your family has been so closely connected to the pharmaceutical industry?” Sanders was asked.
Sanders believed that Califf was a doctor first and foremost, but Sanders wasn’t convinced and voted against Califf Tuesday.
Democratic Senators. Blumenthal, Manchin, and Markey spoke out against Califf before the vote. Manchin noted that California has been particularly affected by opioid abuse. In December, the West Virginian declared that he would not vote in favor of Califf.
“Why would we confirm someone who failed to quickly curb the tides of the opioid epidemic?” Manchin questioned. “Drug-related overdoses increased during Dr. Califf’s tenure as FDA Commissioner.” They are now at an all-time high, with 5 years of record numbers.
Manchin also noted that over half a million Americans had died in the years since Oxycontin was approved by the FDA in 1995. Califf was also criticized for suggesting that Dr. Janet Woodcock, the current acting FDA commissioner, would be retained by the agency. Woodcock had “directly oversaw the approval of many highly addictive drugs to the market as part of FDA leadership.”
Manchin said, “We need a leader willing to reform in pursuit of improving the public health outcomes. Dr. Califf isn’t that candidate.”
Blumenthal also stressed the need to make changes at the top of the agency and echoed Sanders’ concern over Califf’s industry connections.
Blumenthal stated that “I believe his ties with the pharmaceutical industry, as well as other issues, have shown me that there are better possible nominees,” noting that he opposed Califf in 2016 when he was confirmed. “And I want someone who will truly break with the past. We need a new era for the FDA. I voted against him because of that hope and my reservations about his ties with the pharmaceutical industry.
However, the Republican Burr supported the vote and stated that Califf would “provide the leadership necessary to promote today’s biomedical advances.” He also claimed that Califf wasn’t in office for long enough to achieve much, let alone to be held responsible for anything.