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President Bush Unveils NIH and Surgeon General Nominees

Aired March 26, 2002 - 13:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: In the meantime today, East Room of the White House, President Bush has now entered there. There you see the Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. The announcement here, the nomination for next surgeon general.

We will go there live and listen in at the White House.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, thank you, Tommy, very much. And welcome to the White House for this historic announcement. I appreciate your leadership, Tommy, in leading this administration's strong efforts to improve our nation's health care, to make sure that more Americans get affordable health care, better patient protections, that the system puts our patients first, the systems understands the importance of our docs and we value that relationship, patient and doctor.

I also want to assure our fellow Americans that we're going to make and are making an unprecedented commitment to medical research, and we're improving our public health system to make sure that we can respond quickly to any biological threat that our country may face, we're putting sound health care policies in place, and, as importantly, putting a quality team in place. And that's what we're here to discuss today.

It is my honor to nominate two fine men to head important government institutions, to take important jobs. My nominee to lead the National Institute of Health is Elias Zerhouni. And my nominee as the next surgeon general is Richard Carmona. These are distinguished physicians who have worked tirelessly to save lives and to improve lives.

They bring exceptional knowledge and skill to these critical jobs. And they are absolutely dedicated to improving the health and well-being of all Americans.

It is my honor to welcome their families here as well. Thank you for all coming. Nadia (ph) Zerhouni and her children, and Diane (ph) Carmona and her children. We welcome you all, and we're glad you're here.

I want to thank the acting NIH director, Ruth Kirschstein, for being here as well.

Where are you, Ruth? Thank you so much, Ruth, for a fine job. I appreciate the acting surgeon general.

Ken, where are you? Ken, thank you for being here, and thank you for your fine job as well.

I want to thank the former NIH director, Harold Varmus, for being here.

Antonia Novello is here.

Thank you, Antonia. I remember you.

(LAUGHTER)

He was the former surgeon general under 41.

(LAUGHTER)

And I'm so pleased that former House minority leader Bob Michel, for Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, former Congressman John Porter as well from Illinois is here. Thank you all for coming. We're honored you're here.

And I also want to thank the ambassador from Algeria for being here as well. Thank you all for coming.

The National Institutes of Health is entering a new era of medical promise. NIH researchers recently cracked the genetic code; an amazing achievement with enormous potential benefits. New diagnostic tools are alerting patients when they an elevated risk of certain diseases, so they can take an active role in preventing them.

BUSH: New treatment therapies will be tailor-made for an individuals' genetic makeup and many medical treatments will become less invasive. American medicine is on the verge of dramatic progress against AIDS, against diabetes and against heart disease. We're closing in on cancer's cause and cancer's cure.

The anthrax attacks against American citizens also demonstrated the need to strengthen our defenses against bioterrorism. Medical research will improve our ability to identify and respond and treat infectious diseases, whether they occur naturally or are used as terrorist weapons. The NIH has taken a leading role in this important front on the war against terror. The work of the National Institutes of Health have never been more promising and never been more important. Leading the NIH is a great responsibility and I have picked the right man to do so.

Dr. Zerhouni and his wife immigrated to America from Algeria with $300 in their pocket but a dream of opportunity. Today he is executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the chairman of the Department of Radiology and Radiological Science at Johns Hopkins, and a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering. He is an expert in biomedical research and is committed to extending his benefits to all Americans and all humanity.

Dr. Zerhouni will also bring strong management skills to the NIH and they are needed.

BUSH: This is a large and complex organization. The NIH budget has grown dramatically from around $2 billion in 1975 to more than $23 billion today. And my 2003 budget proposes an additional increase of nearly $4 billion.

I urge Congress to approve this increase. And when they do, we will have completed my campaign commitment to double funding to this vital medical research over the next five years.

(APPLAUSE)

Dr. Zerhouni is well-prepared to manage this rapidly growing institution during times of great, new opportunity and urgent biodefense needs. He has supervised research at Johns Hopkins, one of our nation's leading research facilities. One former colleague calls him a quadruple threat; a doctor who excels at teaching, researching, patient care and management.

Dr. Zerhouni shares my view that human life is precious and should not be exploited or destroyed for the benefits of others. And he shares my view that the promise of ethically conducted medical research is limitless.

As director of the NIH, Dr. Zerhouni will be at the forefront of our efforts to promote biomedical research with a careful regard for the bounds of medical ethics.

Dr. Zerhouni, thank you for accepting this incredibly exciting challenge.

(APPLAUSE)

BUSH: Translating medical research into practical life-improving changes is a critical function of the surgeon general. Since 1871, the surgeon general has been America's chief health educator, giving Americans the best, most up-to-date knowledge on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of disease.

When I first learned that Dr. Richard Carmona once dangled out of a moving helicopter, I worried that maybe he wasn't the best guy to educate our Americans about reducing health risks.

(LAUGHTER)

But that turned out to be just one of several times that Dr. Carmona risked his own life to save others.

As an Army Green Beret in Vietnam, a decorated police officer in Pima County, Arizona, a SWAT team member, a nurse and a physician, Dr. Carmona has redefined the term "hands-on medicine." Dr. Carmona currently serves as the clinical professor of surgery and clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona. He is also the chairman of the state of Arizona Southern Regional Emergency Medical System. He will bring to the Surgeon General's Office a proven commitment to service, and a strong management background.

The next surgeon general will address three particularly urgent issues. First, the surgeon general administers the 5,600-member Public Health Service Commission Corps, health care professionals who are on-call for emergency duty. Members of this force were deployed in New York and Washington, D.C., after the terrorist attacks of September 11, and during the anthrax attacks that followed. Dr. Carmona worked for many years in law enforcement and community preparedness; important preparation for any emergency that may come. Dr. Carmona is an experienced voice to help educate Americans about the best precautions and response to the threat of bioterrorism.

Second, I've asked Dr. Carmona to lead an important new initiative focusing on prevention and life-long healthy living as a key component to medical care.

BUSH: The research is overwhelming that simply improvements in diet and exercise would result in dramatic improvements in America's health. Studies show that overweight Americans who are at risk of developing type II diabetes or coronary heart disease can delay and possibly prevent these diseases with just moderate exercise and a healthy diet.

Walking 30 minutes a day will dramatically improve your life. Playing a game with your children in your backyard will help. Walking in a park can make a difference to your health. These relatively small actions can dramatically reduce costs and strain on our health care system.

Fitness and a healthy lifestyle are a priority for me. I really like to run.

(LAUGHTER)

It makes me feel better.

The doc and I are going to encourage all our country to either run or walk or swim or bicycle for the good of their families, for the good of their own health and for the good of the health of the nation.

And thirdly, Dr. Carmona is going to speak regularly to the nation about alcohol and drug abuse and the tremendous toll they take on our society. Substance abuse by students undermines academic achievement and dims the great hope of the American dream. Alcohol is a prime cause for many of our society's ills, not the least of which is domestic violence. And the long-term health affects of alcohol and drug abuse are devastating.

If we want to live healthier and longer, we're going to have to tackle the problems of alcohol and drug abuse. And Dr. Carmona is going to make that one of his priorities.

Doctor, I thank you so very much for your willingness to serve our country.

(APPLAUSE) I have found two fine Americans who are willing to serve our nation, and I'm grateful for their service.

It is now my honor to welcome to the podium Dr. Zerhouni, the nominee to run our National Institute of Health. Dr. Zerhouni?

(APPLAUSE)

DR. ELIAS ZERHOUNI, NIH DIRECTOR NOMINEE: Thank you, Mr. President.

Thank you, Secretary Thompson.

Twenty-seven years ago my wife, Nadia, and I left our home country of Algeria to come to America. We had, as he mentioned, little money, no family and no friends.

ZERHOUNI: Since then, we've raised a family of proud American citizens. We've made many friends, many of whom are here today. We worked hard and have been aptly rewarded. But I could not have dreamed of ever being offered the privilege to serve America in this capacity.

Mr. President, my family and I are touched by your nomination because it says about our great country what now the country can say about itself. It is my distinct honor to be considered for the directorship of the National Institutes of Health. It is the agency that is the driving force behind our nation's preeminence in the biomedical sciences. If confirmed by the Senate, I will do my very best to advance the noble mission of the NIH in helping improve health care for all Americans.

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary, I thank you for giving me this opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

DR. RICHARD CARMONA, SURGEON GENERAL NOMINEE: Mr. President, I am very happy. I've been a runner for a lot of years but it's going to be tough to keep up with you, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

Not part of my remarks, Mr. President, but I've just got to say that you have enabled me to appreciate the American dream. As a high school dropout, a poor Hispanic kid to where I am today was just nothing you could even dream about.

BUSH: Thank you.

CARMONA: Good afternoon and welcome to you all.

Thanks to my family and friends for all the help they have given me in order to arrive at this point in my life.

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary and honored guests, to say that I am profoundly humbled and honored by your nomination for me as the next United States surgeon general is the greatest understatement of all time. You have offered me the most extraordinary gift of all: opportunity; an opportunity to serve my country once again in a time of need, opportunity to join your team and contribute to a successful legacy of change and improvement that will create a healthier and safer future for us all, an opportunity to provide leadership and mentorship by example so that our youth of today will be inspired and empowered to be the responsible leaders of tomorrow.

CARMONA: The standards for entry and performance on your team are immense. Mr. President, Mr. Secretary, I will work diligently in all my endeavors not only to meet your needs but to exceed your expectations and that of the public while I earn my position on your team.

Mr. President and Mr. Secretary, I thank you once again for this opportunity to serve you and my country and to be part of such a wonderful team that has at the forefront prevention and public health and wellness of our country.

Thank you so much, sir.

(APPLAUSE)

HEMMER: That's Dr. Elias Zerhouni, now, nominated to be the head of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, and the man to left and out of the screen there nominated to be the next surgeon general of the United States, Richard Carmona. His resume is quite thick, as we heard from President Bush. To Rea Blakey, our medical correspondent in Washington, listening and watching along here. Senate approval required here, Rea, what have the opponents to these men said thus far?

REA BLAKEY, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We've not heard a great deal from the opponents to -- whether there are any, we're not certain -- Dr. Carmona. I can tell you, however, because we knew much earlier that Dr. Zerhouni might be questionable when it comes to his being granted the Senate approval.

That case surrounds the issue of stem cell research, specifically, obviously, the Bush administration has made it very clear that they are not interested in advancing stem cell research that has to do with embryonic stem cells, that they want to use the existing 60 lines that are, in fact, available.

Dr. Zerhouni has worked quite extensively with an institute at John Hopkins, where he is currently an executive vice dean. That institute is called the Institute of Cell Technology -- Cell Engineering, rather -- and that institute had a grant of some $58 thousand -- million, rather, $58 million granted to it. Dr. Zerhouni's charge was to help try to create the institute, to try to recruit faculty members there.

Again, his interest in biomedical research has to do, though, specifically, Bill, with radiology. He's worked extensively in radiology, which is, in fact, his background. And so, his tie-in with cell engineering is from a radiologist's vantage point, trying to find ways to image, if you will, stem cells once they're implanted into human tissue.

That may be questionable for some members of the Senate. We do know that Barbara Mikulski, who is a Maryland senator, apparently does not have a huge issue with this particular aspect of career, obviously the Bush administration would not go as far as to nominate him if they didn't feel that he would somehow not interfere with their position on stem cell research.

HEMMER: And Rea, I pointed out the potential for detractors, but clearly, these men also have extensive resumes too, and I am curious to know within the medical industry, or the medical field, any surprises here, or were both of these nominations anticipated?

BLAKEY: Well, certainly, Zerhouni is not a surprise. Dr. Carmona, however, has such a remarkable resume, I think, to put it quite blandly. He is an interesting guy, a former trauma surgeon, who also is a member of a SWAT team in Arizona, in Pima County for the sheriff's department there.

His resume includes some really phenomenal information, for example the president mentioned repelling from a helicopter, which Dr. Carmona did to assist people who were victims of a helicopter crash. He also had a rather remarkable run-in with an individual in a traffic stop in which Dr. Carmona unfortunately ended up shooting the gentleman in his capacity as a member of SWAT team and as a police official. But also, in the meanwhile, tried to save that gentleman's life.

It is just such a remarkable story, that it seems a little bit fairy tale, if you will. Here is a man who had been born in Harlem, who dropped out of high school, who went into the Army, got his GED, went to college and medical school, as the fist in his family to graduate college, and has really pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and so, in a way, it is remarkable that he has come this far and then add on top of that the stories that I just remarked to you about. Really, a fascinating character.

HEMMER: Yeah, and also the helicopter story we just heard from the president in the East Room. Fascinating stuff. Rea, thanks. Rea Blakey, our -- quickly, when could they go before Congress?

BLAKEY: At this point, it could be fairly quickly, within the next couple of weeks, the next month or so. The position at NIH has been vacant for more than two years, and obviously the surgeon general, David Satcher, stepped down in February, last month, and so there is an effort by the administration to try and get this stuff underway as quickly as possible.

HEMMER: All right, thanks for putting a button on it. Thanks, Rea. Rea Blakey live in D.C. from our Washington bureau there.

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