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Interview with Tommy Thompson

Aired May 4, 2002 - 17:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak. Mark Shields and I are in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building to question the Bush administration's leader in health-related issues.

MARK SHIELDS, CO-HOST: He is Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services.


(voice-over): The midterm election battle over prescription-drug benefits to senior citizens heated up this week with the House Republican leadership promising a plan more generous than their previous proposals.

REP. BILLY TAUZIN (R), LOUISIANA: The new drug benefit we're going to provide in this bill will be part of Medicare. This legislation will lower the cost of prescription drugs for all seniors.

SHIELDS: Democratic leaders immediately branded the Republican plan as inadequate.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: If we're going to deal with this issue and not deal with pressure on the drug companies to get prices down to reasonable levels, then we will have failed to take care of this problem properly.

SHIELDS: A few hours later, a maverick southern Democratic, who often votes with Republicans, cosponsored his own plan that is more costly and generous that the GOP version.

SEN. ZELL MILLER (D), GEORGIA: I am not interested in merely proposing a prescription-drug benefit. I'm interested in passing a prescription-drug benefit. And I mean passing it before Election Day and hopefully even before the August recess.

SHIELDS: The prescription drug issue is just one of many politically controversial questions that Tommy Thompson must deal with as HHS secretary, his first federal post after a long career in Wisconsin state government.

He spent 20 years in the state legislature and was elected to an unprecedented fourth term is governor, serving for 14 years, before accepting President Bush's invitation to join his Cabinet.


SHIELDS: Secretary Tommy Thompson, a hot issue of the week and of the campaign of 2002 appears to be prescription-drug benefits for those under Medicare. And the Republicans have come up with their -- the House Republicans -- with their plan. The Senate Democrats, led by Zell Miller, a maverick conservative Democrat, have trumped it already, with double the cost and greater benefits, lower deductible.

Will the administration -- are they willing to go that far, as Senator Miller and Senator Graham are proposing?

TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: What the administration really wants is a revised and strengthened Medicare mark, one that's going to be able to stand the time and be able to be financially stable and one with prescription- drug as well as stopgap- loss coverage. And we believe that we can do that.

We believe we can do it within the confines of the budget message, the budget resolution passed by the House, the $350 billion over 10 years. We think it's a much superior plan, and we know that it's going to have to get through both houses, and we're trying very hard to get it up and passed this year.

The president feels very passionate about it and strong about it, and I hope that we're going to be able to get enough bipartisan support to really get a good prescription drug coverage with a revised and strengthened Medicare proposal.

SHIELDS: One of the criticisms that's made of the administration's approach is a drug, for example, like Tamoxifen, created by NIH, that is available for women suffering from breast cancer, $300. The same prescription in the United States is $29 in Canada. That's unacceptable. I mean, aren't you better off just taking a bus to Canada?

THOMPSON: Well, the truth of the matter is, this is never going to be solved until we're able to get a prescription-drug coverage in the Medicare proposal. This is always going to be front and center. And that's why I'm hopeful that the Congress, in both Houses and both parties, will really address this issue this year.

I don't think we can do it piecemeal. I think we have to do it with a strengthened Medicare. That's what the president wants, that's what the department wants. And we have a proposal up there that the president has been advocating for some time, and I think it's time to get it done. And I think it would help to drive down cost. It certainly would help to benefit the elderly of our society. And I think that is necessary.

SHIELDS: Senator Dorgan, the Democrat of North Dakota, Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine up for reelection in a tough race, have both endorsed legislation that would require the same benefits and the same costs of being able to re-import American drugs from Canada back to the United States at the same time. What's your position on that? THOMPSON: But the problem is, Mark, is what they put in, is they -- there's no way to assure the safety and the quality of it, because we have no way for FDA to regulate that, we have no way for FDA to make sure that it is safe. And that's the problem. We want to make sure that the drugs that are coming into America are safe and are of the same quality that are produced here in the United States.

And that's why the proposal that was passed before, and one which was turned down by the prior administration and turned down by this administration, was that they require the department here and myself as secretary and Donna Shalala, the previous secretary, to certify that they were safe. There's no way to establish that those particular pills are safe when they're manufactured in another area, brought in without under the jurisdiction or supervision or regulation of FDA. That's the problem.

NOVAK: Mr. Secretary, I didn't quite get your answer to Mark's first question of whether you are willing, in a bidding war, to match not what the most liberal Democrats are proposing but what Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia are proposing, which is more generous, bigger benefits, less downpayments. Are you willing to match that, in the administration, in the coming weeks?

THOMPSON: Bob, no, we're not. We're not willing to go that far. We feel that we can get a very comprehensive proposal for $350 billion. That's what the House budget proposal said, and we feel that we can do it with the kind of changes, the kind of choices that our seniors want across America. And we think it would benefit all seniors if we did that.

You know, it's easy to spend money when you don't have it, and that's the problem. There's not enough money around in order to satisfy all of the concerns. So we believe the best proposal is the $350 billion one that the House Republicans are pushing, one that will give prescription-drug coverage, stopgap losses, as well as provide for the kind of choices for its beneficiaries that every federal employee has.

NOVAK: Congressman Tauzin, a Republican of Louisiana, and the House Democratic Leader Gephardt, in our little opening news program, they both are saying that the government can reduce the cost of drugs. Do you think that's really realistic?

THOMPSON: No, I don't think it's realistic at this point in time, unless you're able to pass the kind of prescription-drug coverage we're talking about.

NOVAK: Do you think you can reduce the price of drugs with that kind of coverage?

THOMPSON: No, you're not going to be able to reduce the coverage, but you're going to be able to stabilize it.

NOVAK: Not going to reduce the price, you're saying?

THOMPSON: Not going to reduce the price, but you'll be able to stabilize them, and that's what we need.

NOVAK: Now, a question I had a little trouble understanding, Mr. Secretary, is that the Medicare plan is bad trouble. It's going to need some help. But all of these proposals add additional costs on Medicare. How can you solve your -- get Medicare out of its problems if you're going to add this extra burden of prescription drugs...

THOMPSON: The only way you're going to be able to do that, Bob, is by having the choices, allowing the Medicare beneficiary to have the same kind of choices that I have and every federal employee does, and that's with the 10 to 12 choices that a federal employee has.

We would like to bring in that kind of competition and be able to allow the Medicare beneficiary to be able to choose, what is the best plan for himself or herself or their family? And that, we think, is going to be able to stabilize the cost. It's going to allow for benefits. And it's going to put Medicare, hopefully, on a solid financial footing.

SHIELDS: Secretary Thompson, right now Medicare and Social Security consume 6.7 percent of the entire gross national product. That's going to 11.1 percent in just 28 years. I mean, aren't we going to have to either cut back on benefits under Social Security or postpone retirement?

THOMPSON: No, I don't think so, Mark. I think if we -- if we're able to give the American public and the Medicare beneficiary and allow those individuals that are under Medicare right now to be able to keep the programs they want, for those that are coming into the program or those that want to additional benefits, to be able to allow for an additional co-pay, but also allow for them to have their choices. And if we do that, we're going to bring some competition into the Medicare system, allow the beneficiary to have the kind of choices they want. And we think that will stabilize the system and make it financially solvent for many years to come.

And that's what the president wants, that's what the department wants, and I believe, hopefully, that's what the American public wants.

NOVAK: We have time for one more question before we take a break.

Mr. Secretary, you're a political realist. Senator Zell Miller is a political realist. He says you can have a Medicare bill with prescription drugs passed before the election of 2002. Do you think that's realistic?

THOMPSON: Absolutely. I believe that we can, and I'll tell you why, Bob. The Congress -- every member of the House of Representatives ran two years ago. And what was the number-one issue? You guys debated it on your show. And that was prescription drugs. And congressmen on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, promised the voters that they were going to be able to deliver prescription drugs. This year they're going to be coming in with new districts because of reapportionment. And I can't imagine they would want to go in front of the voters once again and say, "Try us one more time. Give me another chance to deliver prescription drugs."

So I think the pressure is going to build in August and September for some kind of proposal to pass, and hopefully they're going to pass the prescription-drug coverage with the rest of the provisions that are going to make Medicare solvent for the future.

NOVAK: We have to take a break, and when we return we'll ask the secretary of HHS about bioterrorism and human cloning.


SHIELDS: We're here at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building with Secretary Tommy Thompson of HHS.

Secretary Thompson, the hot issue, second hot issue, is human cloning. Senator Mary Landrieu, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Republican and Democrat, have a bill to prohibit any cloning for any purposes at all.

And I just don't hear much from you on this issue. And I'm just wondering, is Tommy Thompson ambivalent on this issue?

THOMPSON: No. Tommy Thompson is not ambivalent on any issue. You know that, Mark.

SHIELDS: I know, but I mean, why aren't you more outspoken on this?

THOMPSON: Well, the president has spoken very eloquently on it. And he's said that we are not going to support any kind of cloning whatsoever, either therapeutic or reproductive cloning. And the president has made that crystal clear, and I support the president.

SHIELDS: You're comfortable with that?

THOMPSON: I am comfortable with the president...

SHIELDS: One of the...

THOMPSON: ... and the position that he's taken.

SHIELDS: And the position. OK, one of the criticisms made of proposed cloning, not from the traditional right but from sort of the left side of the political equation, is the possibility of designer babies, sort of marketplace eugenics, where people with money could go in and sort of select intelligence genes and good-looking genes. Is that a concern to you?

THOMPSON: It's a concern that we would use reproductive cloning to make selection like that, make any type of selections like that. And I believe that the Brownback bill recognizes that. And the president feels very strongly that he does not want to start a slippery slope. And where do you end, where do you begin, where do you stop? And the president says the best way to do it, and I agree with him, is to say there's no position like stopping reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning at the beginning so we don't start down this slippery slope.

NOVAK: Mr. Secretary, there has been new evidence that bioterrorism is a problem, a big problem. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- discovered anthrax production facilities to use terrorism against the United States. Yet the bioterrorism bill has been lodged in a Senate- House conference for weeks, weeks. Why is that going on? Can you explain that?

THOMPSON: Well, the reason it's going on is because there are a lot of things that some senators would like in. They would like to put in the PDUFA, the Prescription Drug Utilization Fee Act, the one that would allow for drugs to be approved faster by paying some dollars by the companies and being able to hire inspectors out at FDA and regulators.

There are other proposals put in, but we think that the bioterrorism bill has got a great deal of bipartisan support. We've been up there lobbying for it. And we feel very good that it's going to pass out before the Memorial Day recess. That's what everybody tells us.

NOVAK: But not long ago, Mr. Secretary, you said that there was some confusion in the administration between the bio-tech responsibilities of the health people and the law enforcement people. And you wanted the Congress to settle those differences, to (inaudible). You mean the Bush administration can't sort this jurisdictional problem out themselves?

THOMPSON: The Bush administration has sorted it out. And they brought in Tom Ridge to be the coordinator. And Tom Ridge has just done an excellent job. And I...

NOVAK: So what are you asking Congress to do then?

THOMPSON: There still are some inconsistencies that could be straightened out. And that was the -- the question was asked by several members of the Congress when I was up there testifying. I told them, and I will tell you, that the coordination is -- we're doing an extremely good job here at the department...

NOVAK: You're saying you could do better?

THOMPSON: Well, I'm not saying we could do better. I'm saying that if there are some inconsistencies, the Congress is the one that will have to change those inconsistencies and be able to determine who is going to have the responsibility.

But right now, we feel very good about where the responsibility lies. And homeland security is doing their job. We're doing our job over here as part over here as far as bioterrorism. And I hope you have some time after the show to come down and take a look at what we're doing in bioterrorism, because I think we're -- we've got a very effective plan put in place to handle the situation, if in fact there is any more bioterrorism attacks.

SHIELDS: This is the year, Mr. Secretary, under the law, when the welfare reform has to be revisited.


SHIELDS: And you certainly were a pioneer in that field. Eighty percent of the welfare load in the state were moved...

THOMPSON: Ninety-three percent in Wisconsin...

SHIELDS: Ninety-three percent -- well, 80 percent was the figure I had. So obviously, I had a Democratic figure.

THOMPSON: Yes, you did.


SHIELDS: But the question is, you made a very strong point when you did that. You said, "You can't do it on the cheap." You increased daycare. You increased childcare. You increased medical coverage, transportation and training. Now, it looks right now as the administration is about to renew, that you are going to try -- states are going to try and do it on the cheap.

THOMPSON: Not necessarily so. I mean, if you look at the figures, half of the caseload has been eliminated, and over half of the children, as far as the number of children that were on welfare, are no longer on the welfare roles. And you're still giving the same amount of money.

So you're giving the same amount of money for half of the numbers. Therefore, it seems to me, it is not done on the cheap, and it's a very good proposal.

We went throughout the country. We had eight hearings across America, Mark, in which we asked people from all different arenas and philosophies to come in and talk about it. And most of those individuals came in and said, "If you could be able to restructure it, give us some more flexibility, but keep the dollars the same, we could do the next level of welfare reform in America." And that's what we're trying to do.

So I believe it's a very generous package. I believe it's one in which Congress is going to approve on a bipartisan basis, but I'm fairly comfortable and confident that Congress is going to put more money in for childcare. And Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has already indicated that -- the Senate proposal. So there will be more money for childcare, but it still is a good package. And I think it's a generous package.

NOVAK: Secretary Thompson, it's an astounding fact of life that President Bush has not yet nominated anybody to head the Food and Drug Administration. There's a story out that the acting administration, Dr. Lester Crawford, doing a good job, that you recommended that he be named and the White House rejected him. Is that true, or is there another reason why we don't have an FDA nominee by this administration?

THOMPSON: Well, the FDA director -- the acting director, Les Crawford, is doing an excellent job.

NOVAK: Why isn't he nominated then?

THOMPSON: Well, I think that there's a possibility that he will be, but I think that's going to have to come from the White House. And I believe Les Crawford is an outstanding individual. The White House is reviewing Les Crawford, as well as some other candidates, and I think that you're going to find a decision on the FDA director relatively soon, Bob.

NOVAK: Isn't that odd, that a year and a half into this administration there's no FDA director appointed?

THOMPSON: Well, we've got an acting director who's doing an excellent job, and I think, you know, he's doing an outstanding job. And I think the White House is looking at him, as well as some other people, and I think the White House will make a decision relatively soon.

NOVAK: We're going to have to take a break, and when we come back, we will ask the secretary of HHS, Tommy Thompson, the Big Question.


NOVAK: The Big Question for Tommy Thompson:

Mr. Secretary, the president, in a year and a half, has not proposed any legislation to abolish partial-birth abortion, has not pushed it on the Hill, even though there was a big majority for it in the last Congress, almost overwrote Bill Clinton's veto.

Is it now -- can we now say that this is a dead issue with the Bush administration, they've lost interest in this subject?

THOMPSON: No, the president has never lost interest on this particular subject matter, and he is certainly looking forward for Congress to act in this area.

And there's no question that the president feels very strongly about right to life, and he has pushed the cloning issue, and he has come out with a tough position on that. He's come out with, I think, a correct position on stem cells.

And I think, you know, there's only so much this president can do. I mean, he's fighting a war, he's got bioterrorism and homeland security, he's got a lot of domestic issues. So I don't think that just because he hasn't pushed this issue at this point that he's lost any interest in it whatsoever, because that's not the case. SHIELDS: Tommy Thompson, you've been elected governor of your home state four times. But this year, there's another Thompson running, your brother Ed.


Your younger brother is running for governor as a Libertarian.

THOMPSON: As a Libertarian.

SHIELDS: Now, you're a lifelong Republican, a loyal member of the GOP.

THOMPSON: Yes, I am.

SHIELDS: Doesn't Ed Thompson's candidacy, carrying the family name and all the rest of it, pose a threat to the election of a Republican governor this November in Wisconsin?

THOMPSON: Well, it all depends upon how the election comes out. I don't believe that that's the case. I think that everybody has a right to run. And I'm a Republican, he's a Libertarian. I love my brother dearly, but that's as far as it goes.

SHIELDS: Are you endorsing him?

THOMPSON: I am not endorsing anybody at this point in time?

SHIELDS: OK. Secretary Tommy Thompson, thank you very much.

Robert Novak and I will be back in a moment with a comment.


SHIELDS: Bob, there isn't a more successful politician in the entire Bush administration than Tommy Thompson, four times governor of Wisconsin. And he's convinced that congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans, can't go back in 2002 without passing a prescription drug bill they talked about in the 2000 campaign. And he's a lot more confident about this than anybody I know on the Hill, but I don't bet against Tommy Thompson's political judgment.

NOVAK: Well, but the problem is that the -- he says, "How can you go back -- congressman go back and not have passed the prescription drugs?" But I think a lot of the Democrats would like to say, "Hey, those -- the administration wouldn't give us the kind of the bill we wanted."

SHIELDS: Well, I'll say this, Tommy Thompson was pretty outspoken on the question of partial-birth abortion. But let's be frank about it. George W. Bush has been mute on that since he took the office on January 20, 2001.

This is a bill -- legislation that passed the Congress overwhelmingly when Bill Clinton was there and almost overrode his veto. And yet, we're still waiting for any kind of leadership from the White House.

Tommy Thompson is pretty clear on it, but not George W. Bush.

NOVAK: Governor Thompson was also, I thought, clear on being against human cloning. The president did make a big pitch for the bill to abolish human cloning about a week ago, two weeks ago, but he hasn't said anything much since.

And I think maybe the problem is this administration is so geared to the war against terrorism, they don't say an awful lot about other things.

NOVAK: I'm Robert Novak.

SHIELDS: I'm Mark Shields.

Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, the latest on the crisis in the Middle East and the president's political problems at home and in California. Also, we interviewed Democratic senior statesman Bob Strauss.

NOVAK: That's all for now. Thanks for watching.




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