Nearly two-thirds of Americans no longer trust the Food and Drug Administration's ability to ensure the safety and effectiveness of pharmaceuticals, Congress has been warned.

As a result, Americans may hesitate to take important medicines that protect their health, and that is unacceptable, said Senator Tom Daschle, US President-elect Barack Obama's choice for the post of Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary, speaking a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on January 8.

“As Secretary, I will work to ensure that trust in FDA is restored as the leading science-based regulatory agency in the world. I will support strengthening the FDA to meet the pressing scientific and global challenges of the 21st century. And I will send a clear message from the top that the President and I expect key decisions at the FDA to be made on the basis of science – period,” Sen Daschle told the Committee.

Today, there is a broad understanding that the FDA’s public health mission is as critical as ever, he said. “Patients understand that their lives depend on speedy access to safe and effective medical products,” while “industries need the FDA’s seal of approval to inspire confidence.”

The DHHS, which is the largest domestic Cabinet agency in the US federal government, will be central to reforming the US health care system, whose current flaws are “pervasive and corrosive – they threaten our health and economic security,” said Sen Daschle, who is also the President-elect’s nominee to run the new White House Office of Health Reform.

“It is unacceptable that, in a nation of approximately 300 million people, nearly one in six Americans don’t have health insurance,” Sen Daschle told the panel, also pointing out that, by some measures, nearly a third of US health care is “at best inadequate, and at worst harmful.”

He also pledged to strengthen the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which, despite being “the major source of research intended to protect the nation’s health, stimulate the economy with high-tech job creation across the country, make discoveries that fuel the biotech and pharmaceutical industries and train biomedical scientists for the future,” has been flat-funded in recent years. It has also suffered from other problems, including instances of “people putting politics before science,” he said.

Addressing the panel in support of the nominee was Republican Senator Bob Dole, who said that President-elect Obama has chosen, in Sen Daschle, “an individual who begins the important task of reforming health care with the ability to hit the ground running." He also pointed out that Sen Daschle is the only person ever to serve twice as both Majority and Minority leader in the Senate, and that they both believe that bipartisan working is the best way to achieve health system reform. However, Sen Dole added wryly, “with the big Democratic majority, he may not need Republicans.”

The HELP Committee did not vote on whether to send Sen Daschle’s nomination to the full Senate; this will be decided at another confirmation hearing to be held later this month by the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid. The Finance panel is likely to give the nominee a tougher time than HELP, but is generally expected to approval his appointment.