President Bush abruptly proposed yesterday a significant increase in government funding to ensure the safety of food and drug imports.
The Bush administration requested giving the Food and Drug Administration an added $275million in funding during the next fiscal year.
That would be on top of the $2.4billion budget that the Bush administration had initially proposed.
The move, which comes as Congress prepares to consider the agency''s budget, would pay for basing inspectors abroad, increasing the number of inspections and modernizing computer systems, federal health officials said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt described the new proposal as a natural outgrowth of the administration''s efforts to improve the safety of the more than $2 trillion in products shipped to the United States each year.
Leavitt had presented the import safety plan in November, but he never gave a price tag, angering Democrats as well as a coalition of industry, consumer and medical groups that criticized the FDA''s funding as too low and pushed for more.
William K. Hubbard, a former FDA official who has been working for the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, said inflation would have effectively wiped out the slight increase that the administration had initially proposed for next year''s budget.
Hubbard praised the administration''s change of heart as "an extraordinary move that reflects the tremendous need at the FDA."
The House is scheduled to take up the FDA''s budget during hearings this month. Congress usually funds the president''s request, which means the FDA is likely to get the president''s proposed increase at least.
In March, the Senate passed a budget resolution giving the FDA an added $375 million. The agency''s Science Board has said that sum was needed to bolster the agency.
The Bush administration has been under pressure to raise FDA funding. Democrats have held hearings blaming tightfisted budgets for the lethal contamination of imported ingredients used in pet food and, more recently, a widely used blood-thinning drug.
At an April hearing, Rep. John D. Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, raised his voice, pounded his desk and pointed at FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach because the commissioner wouldn''t specify how much more funding the agency could use to improve foreign inspections.
Von Eschenbach said in a conference call with reporters last night that the agency would use the additional money to hire 490 staff members.
Under the president''s proposal, the FDA''s fiscal year 2009 budget would be 18 percent higher than this year''s.
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