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FDA nominee Califf questioned on drug costs in confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration's nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration appeared poised to move toward confirmation Tuesday after weathering a few pointed questions on drug costs and connections to pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Robert Califf received mostly gentle treatment during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

However, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, said he will not vote to approve Califf because the nominee isn't serious enough about tackling rising prescription drug prices.

Califf, a cardiologist whom Obama nominated in September after Dr. Margaret Hamburg stepped down, has been criticized for ties to the pharmaceutical industry as director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

Since February, Califf has served as the FDA's deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. His priorities as commissioner, he said Tuesday, would include strengthening the FDA workforce, working with Congress to reduce tobacco use and further developing the science that informs FDA decisionmaking.

Sanders said it was beyond comprehension that fish and vegetables could be imported from throughout the world while people could not buy brand-name drugs from Canada.

Califf said the FDA has "major concerns" about importation because the infrastructure for doing so is not in place.

Sanders said drug companies are making large profits while many Americans aren't able to afford medication prescribed to them. “I don't think you get that,” he told Califf. “I believe you are not strong enough on the most important issue.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she has requested contracts from Califf's work on industry-funded studies at Duke, saying the relationship “naturally raises questions.”

Califf responded that the results of those studies were never censored or changed, and that he is an advocate for transparency and higher standards guarding against conflicts of interest in medical research.

“Keeping that academic independence we think is critical,” he said.

The committee did not vote Tuesday whether to send Califf's nomination to the full Senate. Some members submitted additional questions to him in writing.


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