By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
When is $4 million really $2.8 million?
One answer is "When you're a woman," as the Labor Department has repeatedly found that women earn about 75 cents for every dollar that men earn for the same work.
But this week's answer is "When you are the Office of Women's Health" within the Food and Drug Administration. That office, which was at the center of a politically damaging storm over the emergency contraceptive "Plan B," just had more than one-quarter of this year's $4 million operating budget quietly removed, insiders say.
The office funds research on male-female biological differences to ensure that women receive the most appropriate drug doses and treatments. It also produces heavily requested health information about menopause, pregnancy, birth control, osteoporosis and other topics.
The administration had requested -- and Congress had budgeted -- $4 million for the office in fiscal 2007, just as they have for several years running.
Last week, however, word came down that the FDA intends to withhold $1.2 million of that, apparently for use elsewhere in the agency. Because the remaining $2.8 million has already been spent or allocated for salaries and started projects, the office must effectively halt further operations for the rest of the year, according to a high-level agency official with knowledge of the budget plan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak publicly.
FDA spokesman Robert Ali said in an e-mail that, as a matter of policy, the agency does not discuss its spending plan until Congress has had a chance to review it and comment. However, he added, "the spending plan for the agency is to allow our operating components to spend at least at their 06 level" -- in other words, the full $4 million.
But FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza quickly corrected that statement in a follow-up e-mail, saying the spending plan for the agency is "INTENDED" to allow spending of at least the 2006 level, acknowledging that the spending plan is not ironclad.
Women's health advocates inside and outside the agency suspect they are witnessing, at least in part, a long-anticipated payback for the trouble the office stirred during the prolonged debate over nonprescription sales of Plan B. Taking a position that chafed the administration's conservative base, the office had stood up for scientific research that had backed the safety and appropriateness of such sales.
In 2005, the office's then-director, Susan Wood, resigned in protest over the issue, a major embarrassment to the agency. A compromise was finally reached last August that allowed over-the-counter sales of the drug to people at least 18 years old.
Martha R. Nolan, a vice president at the Society for Women's Health Research, a Washington advocacy group, said that big budget bites in Washington are often the beginning of the end and that she worries that this is retribution for the Plan B controversy.
"We fear this is the first step toward eliminating the Office of Women's Health," Nolan said. "We must not allow this office to be eliminated or reduced to an empty shell that has no program funding."
The office was created in 1994 amid growing evidence that some sex-based differences in biology warranted special regulatory attention -- and a recognition that other offices within the FDA did not have the time, money or expertise to focus on women's special needs.
More than 200 research articles based on studies funded by the office have appeared in scientific journals since 1994, and the office's fact sheets and other publications have generated record-breaking responses in recent years.
FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach is to appear today before the Senate appropriations subcommittee to discuss the agency's 2008 budget. Tomorrow, he will have a repeat performance before the House.