Bush Taps Wisconsin Governor Thompson for HHS
President-elect Bush on Dec. 29 nominated Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) for the position of HHS secretary, the Washington Post reports. Thompson, praised by Bush as a "leader and an innovator," is one of several recent individuals selected to "round out a firmly conservative Cabinet," the Post adds (Milbank, Washington Post, 12/30). At a news conference announcing his cabinet position nominations last week, Bush hailed Thompson as "a creative, conservative, compassionate governor" and a "champion ... for disadvantaged Americans." Thompson cited health care reform, long term care for seniors, the expansion of opportunities for the disabled and advancements in biotechnology and scientific research as issues he is "absolutely passionate" about and on which he hopes to focus on if confirmed (Conference transcript, 12/29). The Washington Post reports that Thompson "is poised to lead a federal bureaucracy he has disdained, long and loudly, as an obstacle to the welfare and health care innovations he championed for his state." Thompson, in his autobiography "Power to the People: An American State at Work," referred to Washington, D.C., as "Disneyland East" and wrote that "common sense cannot flourish in an America where Washington calls the shots." But the Post reports that "the leap from critic to cabinet member" is not necessarily "as radical departure as it might seem," according to Thomas Corbett, a former HHS official who is now the associate director of the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty. "It would be working for a president who is also a states' rights kind of guy," Corbett said.
The Wisconsin Track Record
The Post reports that no governor "has been as aggressive as Thompson -- or as impatient -- in trying to secure 'waivers' from HHS" to create health and welfare programs in ways that "federal officials didn't envision," and he has been a "main proponent of converting Medicaid to a system of block grants." During his tenure in Wisconsin he used waivers to build social policy that the Post labels "deeply conservative but not entirely simple to classify." For example, while he enacted welfare to work legislation, he "vastly expanded Wisconsin's subsidies for child care, health insurance and job training." And although he opposes abortion, he supported family-planning programs and "fostered a broad new state initiative to improve women's health." One of his chief achievements is Wisconsin's CHIP program, BadgerCare. Eighteen months ago the program became the first in the nation to offer health coverage to the parents of eligible children. Another initiative that is "ahead of the national debate" is Wisconsin's restructuring of its long-term care system for the elderly. The state is also allowing people with disabilities to retain government subsidies after gaining employment (Goldstein, Washington Post, 12/30.)
Thompson is also poised to handle the "bitter fight" being waged nationwide over the country's policy on organ distribution. Many states, including Wisconsin, have passed legislation designed to keep organs in the states in which they were donated. However, recent HHS guidelines have sought to make "scarce" organs available to those who need them most, regardless of location. Hans Sollinger, chair of organ transplantation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that Thompson is a good candidate to address this issue. "[Thompson] will come in with a very detailed knowledge about the issues (because) he has been intimately involved with them through his work in Wisconsin. So he already has a distinct advantage," Sollinger said (Griffin, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 12/30). United Network for Organ Sharing Executive Director Walter Graham also expressed support for Thompson. "As governor of the state of Wisconsin for 14 years, Thompson has demonstrated strong leadership and management skills necessary for this key position. In that time he has also devoted significant personal interest and commitment to the issues of organ donation and transplantation," Graham said (UNOS release, 12/29).
Thompson's record on abortion issues drew praise from some abortion rights opponents and criticism from abortion rights advocates. While governor, Thompson signed informed consent legislation and a law banning "partial-birth" abortions. Abortion-rights groups have voiced "fierc[e]" opposition to the nomination, criticizing Thompson's positions and record on abortion issues. "Thompson has taken every opportunity to restrict a woman's right to choose and to make access to abortion services more difficult," National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League President Kate Michaelman said (Salladay/Freedberg, San Francisco Chronicle, 12/30). Michaelman added that an antiabortion HHS Secretary such as Thompson could have a "devastating" impact on women's reproductive rights (NARAL release, 12/28). When grading several lawmakers on their abortion-rights records earlier this year, NARAL gave Thompson an "F" for maintaining an "abysmal record" on abortion issues (Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, 7/14). On the antiabortion side, Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, lauded Thompson's "track record of achievement in the pro-life arena." Connor added, "We look forward to lending him our support as he strives to enhance the dignity and well-being of every human life" (Family Research Council release, 12/29). However, Peggy Hamill, state director for the antiabortion group Pro-Life Wisconsin, said, "While the president-elect could have chosen someone much worse, we've never viewed Tommy (Thompson) as a strong pro-lifer." Hamill explained that while Thompson was governor of Wisconsin, the state's family planning budget increased. She added that she is also "troubled" by Thompson's past support of stem-cell research (San Francisco Chronicle, 12/30).