Bush taps EPA chief to replace Thompson as head of HHS

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President George W. Bush chose Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Leavitt on Monday to succeed Tommy Thompson as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the nation's top healthcare post.

White House officials and many healthcare analysts believed as recently as last week that Dr. Mark McClellan, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, was a top candidate for the HHS job. Bush, however, expressed reluctance to choose McClellan with the new Medicare prescription drug law McClellan is to oversee on the verge of taking full effect in 2006.

Leavitt was Utah's governor before joining the Bush administration in late 2003. He is well aware of challenges regarding Medicaid and Medicare funding.

"I look forward to the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug program in 2006, medical liability reform and finding ways to reduce the cost of healthcare," Leavitt said on Monday. "I am persuaded that we can use technology and innovation to meet our most noble aspirations and not compromise our other values that we hold so dear."

Leavitt will assume the traditional duties the position entails, such as overseeing Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Indian Health Service. HHS has a budget of more than $500 billion and includes 67,000 employees.