The election of George W. Bush came as a boon to the tobacco industry. Cigarette companies helped pay for his election, and Bush repaid them handsomely once in office. Right off the bat, in 2001, his Justice Department tried to derail a major federal racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco companies before it went to trial. A few years later, the administration tried to scupper the first international tobacco control treaty (which the U.S. still hasn’t ratified). And in 2007, Bush issued two of the 12 vetoes of his entire presidency to twice kill off bipartisan legislation to increase health insurance coverage for poor kids. Why? Because it would have raised taxes on cigarettes.
What a difference an election makes! Today, President-elect Obama announced his selection of William Corr as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Corr is currently the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a major foe of Bush’s favored industry. More important than his public health advocacy, though: Corr actually has extensive experience with health care policy, a key component of HHS’s responsibilities and one of Obama’s top priorities. Corr started his career running nonprofit health clinics in Appalachia, and, in a major departure from the last eight years, he has actually worked inside the agency he’s been chosen to run.
Corr stands in stark contrast to the people Bush installed in the job. HHS is the largest civilian department in the federal government, housing both the Medicaid and Medicare programs, the Food and Drug Administration, major social welfare programs, and even bioterrorism defense. To manage this enormous portfolio, Bush chose as his first deputy secretary Claude Allen, a man who in 2006 was arrested for making dozens of fraudulent returns at Maryland Target stores, stealing more than $5,000 in the process.
Allen’s successor, Alex Azar II, didn’t know anything about health care or social policy, but he had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Azar left the job to go to work for drug maker Eli Lilly. Azar’s replacement came to HHS directly from the mergers and acquisitions department of a corporate law firm. The post’s current occupant previously worked at the White House, where he was charged with reaching out to Jews. Given this recent history, Corr no doubt has a big job ahead trying to improve morale at a neglected department. But the country should be somewhat reassured that for the first time in many moons, there will be someone at the top who knows what HHS does before he gets there.