Robert M. Califf, MD, plans to take a close look at federal policies on opioid prescriptions in his expected second turn as the top U.S. regulator of medical products, as well as keep closer tabs on the performance of drugs cleared with accelerated approvals.
Dr. Califf on Tuesday fielded questions at a Senate hearing about his nomination by President Joe Biden to serve as administrator of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a role in which he served in the Obama administration. He also spoke about the need to bolster the nation’s ability to maintain an adequate supply of key medical products, including drugs.
Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is handling Dr. Califf’s nomination, were largely cordial and supportive during the hearing. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the committee chair, and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, addressed Dr. Califf during the hearing as if he would soon serve again as the FDA’s leader. Both were among the senators who voted 89-4 to confirm Dr. Califf in a February 2016 vote.
Dr. Califf “was previously confirmed to lead FDA in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, and I look forward to working with him again to ensure FDA continues to protect families across the country, uphold the gold standard of safety and effectiveness, and put science and data first,” Sen. Murray said.
Less enthusiastic about Dr. Califf was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who was among the seven senators who did not vote on Dr. Califf’s nomination in 2016.
Sen. Sanders objected in 2016 to Dr. Califf’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry, and he did so again Tuesday. A noted leader in conducting clinical trials, Dr. Califf has worked with many drugmakers. But at the hearing, Dr. Califf said he concurs with Sen. Sanders on an idea strongly opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.
In response to Sen. Sanders’ question, Dr. Califf said he already is “on record as being in favor of Medicare negotiating with the industry on prices.”
The FDA would not take direct part in negotiations, as this work would be handled by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Democrats want to give Medicare some negotiating authority through their sweeping Build Back Better Act.
People in the United States are dismayed over both the cost of prescription drugs and the widespread distribution of prescription painkillers that helped fuel the current opioid epidemic, Sen. Sanders told Dr. Califf. Many people will be concerned about an FDA commissioner who has benefited from close ties to the industry, Sen. Sanders said.
“How are they going to believe that you’re going to be an independent and strong voice against this enormously powerful, special interest?” Sen. Sanders asked.
“I’m totally with you on the concept that the price of pharmaceuticals is way too high in this country,” Dr. Califf said in reply.
Dr. Califf was paid $2.7 million in salary and bonus by Verily Life Sciences, the biomedical research organization operated by Alphabet, parent company of Google, according to his federal financial disclosure. He also reported holding board positions with pharmaceutical companies AmyriAD and Centessa Pharmaceuticals.
Bloomberg Government reported that Dr. Califf has ties to about 16 other research organizations and biotech companies. Bloomberg Government also said that, in his earlier FDA service, Dr. Califf kept a whiteboard in his office that listed all the activities and projects that required his recusal, citing as a source Howard Sklamberg, who was a deputy commissioner under Dr. Califf.
“He was very, very, very careful,” Mr. Sklamberg, who’s now an attorney at Arnold & Porter LLP, told Bloomberg Government.