FDA Commissioner nominee Hahn promises to put science above politics

The would-be replacement for departed FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb faced a Senate committee's grilling Wednesday, and he supported drug-pricing action—and science.

During the hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Stephen Hahn fielded questions on everything from drug prices and biosimilars to drug shortages and opioids. Unsurprisingly, Hahn said he'd work with Congress on those issues if the Senate votes him in.

Early in the session, the nominee faced a pointed question from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) about the FDA's "gold standard" of placing science and data above politics. Some far-right lawmakers and commentators have advocated a looser approach to drug approvals, and Murray specifically mentioned past roadblocks for drugs that terminate pregnancy.

Hahn responded that he plans to continue putting science first. "As a frontline physician who has come to depend upon the FDA, I very much commit to that gold standard," he told Sen. Murray.

As for pricing, Hahn said the American people "want action." When asked whether pharma companies are pricing drugs out of reach, Hahn said that in his experience “rarely a day goes by” that drug pricing doesn’t affect one of his patients. 

It’s an “urgent” issue and the “American people want us to act on this," he told the senators. Hahn said he’s “very interested” in the ways the FDA can stimulate competition and lower costs. On importation, Hahn said he’d look into specifics on whether that individual policy could work. 

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) asked the nominee about instances in which he’s disagreed with supervisors given that political pressures could come into play if he’s confirmed. Hahn said there have been times in his career “where recommendations have been made that in my opinion weren’t always in the best interest” of patients. He pledged to stand up for patients' interests as it's the most “important and awesome” responsibility of the FDA. 

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Hahn, who has been chief medical executive at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston since 2018, also has experience at the National Cancer Institute—and he had some thoughts about opioids, given his own experiences treating cancer pain.

Hahn said he's seen firsthand how practitioners have "totally changed … how we provide relief of pain for cancer patients." Previously, doctors were told that they can treat patients with opioids without risk of addiction. Now, he said, there's a fine balance between relieving suffering and ensuring patients don't misuse their medicines.

Looking ahead, the committee will meet again on Dec. 3 to consider the nomination, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he hopes the full Senate confirmation will take place by the end of the year. 

This month, President Donald Trump appointed Hahn, who if confirmed will succeed former commissioner Scott Gottlieb. Gottlieb stepped down in April after nearly 2 years at the helm to be closer to his family.