FDA Commissioner Resigns; Medicare Details Drug Plan

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The embattled commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Lester Crawford, resigns, two months after his confirmation. In other health news, Medicare unveils the companies that will offer the controversial new prescription drug benefit, set to begin in January.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

While millions of people on the Gulf Coast readied for Hurricane Rita, there were two important health stories out of Washington today. Food and Drug Commissioner Lester Crawford has resigned, and Medicare has unveiled the companies that will offer the controversial new prescription drug benefit that starts next January. A brief report now from NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

The Senate only confirmed Lester Crawford to head the FDA in July. His nomination had been held up for months over charges that he'd inappropriately promoted a woman with whom he had a personal relationship as well as the agency's delay in deciding whether to allow over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive product Plan B. In a memo to FDA staff, Crawford cited his age, 67, as his reason for stepping down. But top HHS officials confirmed that the resignation is effective immediately, suggesting there's some other reason as well.

The news overshadowed what was supposed to be the Bush administration's big health story of the day, the announcement of the private plans that will offer Medicare prescription drug coverage. Mark McClellan is head of the Medicare program. He says that despite some calls for a delay, there'll be no turning back.

Mr. MARK McCLELLAN (Medicare Prescription Drug Program): Seniors need help with their drug costs now, especially seniors with limited means. We are providing that coverage on schedule and nationwide and at a lower cost and with more benefits than most people expected.

ROVNER: Indeed, despite earlier predictions that insurance companies would decline to participate, 10 companies will offer plans nationwide and dozens more on a state or regional basis. But that success may also have a downside. With most plans offering different levels of coverage, says health consultant Bob Lashefsky(ph)...

Mr. BOB LASHEFSKY (Health Consultant): Now the individual senior's going to have to look at hundreds of options perhaps, and you know, some of these people have not been in the insurance purchasing market for a long time. Some of these people are infirm. This is really going to be a daunting exercise over the next couple of months.

ROVNER: And so will finding a new FDA commissioner. The post has been vacant for most of the Bush administration. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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