Tommy Thompson won plaudits from the healthcare community after his resignation as HHS secretary and immediately triggered a wave of speculation about a potential successor to a post that has far-reaching implications for the hospital industry.
Thompson, who has led the nation's largest federal agency since February 2001, submitted his letter of resignation to President Bush, saying he would stay on through Feb. 4 or until the Senate confirms a successor for a job that involves overseeing more than 67,000 employees and an annual budget of about $550 billion.
At an hour-long press conference, Thompson said he told Bush it has been an honor to serve as the head of an agency that "impacts every man, woman and child every day."
G. Edwin Howe, president of Milwaukee-based Aurora Health Care, Wisconsin's largest private employer, called Thompson "one of the best (HHS) secretaries we've had in the past 25 years." His accomplishments, Howe added, "will have a meaningful impact for at least the next generation."
Thompson, 63, served four terms as governor of Wisconsin and helped lead what he described as an "ambitious agenda" that was capped by last year's passage of the Medicare Modernization Act, a sweeping bill he called the "most historic improvement" of the federal health program since its creation in 1965. He also pointed to the federal government's implementation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, an updated reimbursement system and a new focus on information technology as his primary accomplishments related to the hospital industry.
"I will miss this place," he said.
A hard-charging, no-nonsense executive, Thompson has won consistently high marks in the provider community. In addition to managing the appropriation of billions of dollars flowing directly to hospitals, he has been a strong advocate of the hospital quality initiative the CMS launched in 2002.
Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, said, "I think he's done a terrific job. I think he played more of a role in shaping policy on Capitol Hill than most (HHS) secretaries."
Thompson's departure set off a wave of speculation about his successor. Among the oft-mentioned names: Mark McClellan, a physician who is now the CMS administrator and appears to be the front-runner; HHS Deputy Secretary Claude Allen; and retiring Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). At the press conference, Thompson also mentioned other potential candidates for the top job, including Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health.
"I think Mark McClellan is an outstanding young man," Thompson said. "He would make a great secretary."
McClellan would not comment on the possibility that he would take over the job, saying only that he was focusing on implementing the Medicare Modernization Act.
Thompson also mentioned one other prominent name outside of the federal government: "I heard last night that Newt Gingrich was interested," he said.
American Hospital Association spokesman Richard Wade said Thompson's success was in part thanks to his former experience as a governor. "(Governors) look at problems and find ways to solve them," Wade said. "He got things done."
In a letter to his employees obtained by Modern Healthcare, Thompson wrote, "It was a difficult decision and one I did not make easily. But after nearly 40 years in public service, it is time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter in our life."
Thompson, who has made healthcare a cornerstone of his long political career, is the eighth of 15 Cabinet members in the Bush administration to announce his departure.
Thompson said he is "looking forward to the opportunities in the private sector" and felt that a longer tenure in public service might hinder that potential.
"If I stayed any longer," he said, "I would never have the opportunity to go into the private sector."
-with Tony Fong