Thursday, December 21, 2006

Democrats increase pressure on health official

Democrats increase pressure on health official
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats on Wednesday ratcheted up the pressure on the Bush administration to replace its new family planning chief because he has worked for a health provider that opposes the use of birth control.

More than half of all sitting Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter calling for the ouster of Dr. Eric Keroack, who was appointed last month to oversee a $280 million program that provides birth control to poor women.

"We believe the appointment of Dr. Keroack is a horrendous mistake for the safety of women's health in the United States," said the letter, which was signed by 107 Democrats and three Republicans.

The letter points to a showdown between the Department of Health and Human Services and Democrats who will have the power to subpoena government officials when they take control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress in January.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said the administration is not thinking of getting rid of Keroack.

"Everything I know about him is he's a very capable person," Leavitt told a small group of reporters. "I'm sure he will serve well."

As head of the Office of Population Affairs at HHS, Keroack oversees a program that funds birth control, pregnancy tests, breast-cancer screening and other health services for 5 million poor women annually.

HHS estimates that the program prevents 1.5 million unwanted pregnancies each year.

Keroack previously served as medical director for A Woman's Concern, a chain of Boston-area pregnancy clinics that discourage the use of birth control and advocate abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Keroack has stirred controversy as well with his writings, including one widely cited paper entitled "Bonding Imperative: A Special Report from the Abstinence Medical Council," in which he said women who have more than one sex partner have a diminished neurological capacity to experience loving relationships.

HHS in the past has said Keroack will distribute birth control as required by law.

Keroack prescribed birth control at the private practice that took most of his professional time, while his duties at A Woman's Concern were largely limited to giving ultrasounds to pregnant women, HHS says.

"I'm also told that he has regularly prescribed contraception when it was felt appropriate," Leavitt said.

Still, Keroack has galvanized Democrats who saw his appointment shortly after the November elections as a defiant move.

"We are telling this administration that it needs to get its act together in providing real assistance to low-income families to protect women and children," New York Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley, who drafted the letter, said in a statement.

House Democratic leaders did not sign the letter but have given it their support, a Crowley staffer said.

(Additional reporting by Will Dunham)