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Daschle Hearings: Not Just About Universal Coverage

Today the Senate is holding confirmation hearings for Tom Daschle, whom President-elect Obama has tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. The focus is on Obama's plan to overhaul the health insurance system and make coveage available to everybody, an effort that Daschle--who has written a book on the subject--will spearhead. But that's not the only item on the agenda.

Two of the first four questions Daschle has gotten are about the Food and Drug Administration, a perennial source of controversy. The pharmaceutical industry complains it's too slow to approve new drugs, while consumer advocates say the agency should be even more rigorous. The tobacco industry wants to keep the FDA out of its business; public health experts want to put tobacco under direct FDA jurisdiction. (In both cases, as you might guess, I agree with the latter argument.) 

And that's not to mention the fact that, during the Bush years, the agency was subject to enormous political pressures from social conservatives--perhaps most memorably over how to treat emergency contraception for women.

Universal coverage and, more broadly, comprehensive health reform is obviously the urgent matter Obama and his advisers must address. But keep an eye on FDA, too, starting with the decision over who should lead the agency.

--Jonathan Cohn