The physician nominated nearly a year ago to the nation's top-ranking health policy post has yet to receive a Senate hearing -- and may not be considered for confirmation -- amid questions about whether she fabricated or inflated portions of her resume.
Cristina V. Beato was named last July as assistant secretary of health, one of the top policy officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, but has yet to explain several discrepancies regarding her credentials. These include claims that she served as medical attache at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, received a master's degree in public health from the University of Wisconsin, "established" an occupational health clinic at the University of New Mexico and published a scientific paper on inert gases.
At several institutions listed on Beato's resume, officials said they could find no evidence of her service, while former colleagues at the University of New Mexico and an affiliated hospital in Albuquerque disputed assertions she made, saying at a minimum she had puffed up her role in several projects.
In January, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, sent Beato a nine-page letter inquiring about the discrepancies.
HHS spokesman Kevin Keane said yesterday that Beato and staff lawyers were "in the process of going back and answering the questions being raised. We're making sure we provide thorough answers." Until then, Keane said, no one from the Bush administration would discuss her nomination.
She has been serving as the acting assistant secretary, described on the HHS Web site as "the principal advisor on health policy and medical and scientific matters to the secretary." Her responsibilities include overseeing the U.S. Public Health Service, construction of a women's hospital in Afghanistan and promotion of "research integrity and ethics." Her predecessor, Eve Slater, left in February 2003.
"The administration has the right to put forward nominees of its choosing," committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said in a statement. "There is much in her background to recommend her for this post, and the administration is working to respond to the concerns that have been raised." But sources at HHS and in Congress, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there is a growing likelihood the Senate will not vote on her nomination.
Former colleagues in Albuquerque were most surprised by Beato's assertions that she was "one of the principal leaders who revolutionized medical education in American universities by implementing the Problem Based Learning curriculum." The curriculum was developed while Beato was in medical school.
"That's an exaggeration," said Gary Rosenberg, chairman of the neurology department at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, the university's hospital system.
R. Philip Eaton, vice president of the medical center, said others initiated the program but Beato deserves credit for expanding it.
In several instances, Beato's resume is vague. Under professional experience, she lists "medical consultant" at the Technical-Vocational Institute and Presbyterian Senior Health Spectrum in Albuquerque and a 12-year relationship with the Sheet Metal Workers in Washington. None of the organizations has any record on Beato, nor do officials at the State Department, who said they have never heard term "medical attache."
Under educational experience, Beato lists: "successful candidate, occupational medicine, MPH (master's of public health), University of Wisconsin, 1995." A university spokeswoman said the school does not offer such a degree.
Other sensitive charges center on Beato's role as a hospital administrator in New Mexico, trying to keep costs down at a time when immigrants and uninsured patients were flooding the emergency room. A number of lawyers, patient advocates and physicians said Beato often appeared to put the university's budgetary concerns ahead of poor patients' health needs.
As chief medical officer at the university, Beato was sued for refusing to treat Maribel Loya, a comatose teen, and her premature infant. That case, in which Beato was named a defendant, was settled out of court. Lawyer Nancy L. Simmons said she could not divulge the details but was "very happy with the settlement."
In another episode, lawyer Lauro D. Silva said he took a neighbor having kidney failure to the hospital. When they arrived, Silva said, Beato came to the emergency room and told them in Spanish that Rafael Paz did not qualify for care and had to leave "or she would call the police." After Silva threatened legal action, Beato relented, agreeing to give Paz one dialysis treatment if he signed a form promising never to return. Silva said Paz died in Mexico a few months later.
Eaton, who telephoned The Washington Post at Beato's behest, said the Loya case and others like it are far more complicated from a medical and legal perspective.
"She is a remarkable woman" whose experience as a Cuban American woman made her particularly sensitive to multicultural issues, Eaton said.
Yet even Beato's friends said it appears that she gave herself extra credit on her resume.
At the All Faiths Receiving Home in Albuquerque, Executive Director Steve Johnson praised Beato as a dedicated volunteer physician who provided basic care to the abused and neglected. But she was not the medical director, as her resume states, he added.
William Wiese, director of the Institute for Public Health at the University of New Mexico, said it was inaccurate for Beato to say she had "established" the school's occupational health clinic. "The clinic existed before she was hired. There was another medical director before her," he said.
Similarly, he said, Beato's description of the clinic as a "one-stop comprehensive care for 13,000 employees" is an exaggeration. But Wiese said Beato was a good administrator and teacher.
"She definitely played a significant role in improving, enhancing and building that facility," he said. Among her accomplishments was signing contracts to provide occupational health care to several state agencies, which generated revenue for the university.
Beato's nomination was advocated by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). She has given more than $1,200 to him and Republican campaign committees.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.