1 of 2 | The U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday in a 62-36 vote. Bertagnolli, who is a surgical oncologist, was the first woman to lead the National Cancer Institute. File photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 7 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday in a 62-36 vote.
Nearly every Democrat joined 13 Republicans in voting for Bertagnolli, who will fill the post responsible for allocating, managing, and overseeing billions of dollars in federal research grants and other high profile public health initiatives. The leadership position at the NIH has been vacant since Dr. Francis Collins left nearly two years ago.
The NIH helps manage various research organizations that pursue scientific discoveries, including developing vaccines and other innovations in medicine.
A trained surgical oncologist, Bertagnolli previously served as the first woman to lead the National Cancer Institute, the White House said in May when it announced her nomination to lead NIH, which oversees the Cancer Institute.
Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the NIH, said Bertagnolli would bring the "same tireless energy and clear vision" to the NIH that she demonstrated at the Cancer Institute, "working to improve the health and well-being of Americans" as she has throughout her career, Becerra said in a statement.
"She has built a reputation for her willingness to take on the deadliest diseases facing patients and as a powerful advocate for cancer patients, working to end cancer as we know it," Becerra continued.
Bertagnolli discussed her wealth of experience that she will bring to her position and appeared ready to hit the ground running.
"One of the other commitments I want to make is for clinical trials -- since it's been one of my core expertise -- that are faster, more inclusive, more responsive to the needs of people," she told the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee last month. "It's one of the major initiatives that I'd like to see happen at NIH."
Before leading the Cancer Institute, Bertagnolli was a professor of surgery in oncology at Harvard Medical School, as well as a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a Massachusetts hospital affiliated with Harvard. She was also a member of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment and Sarcoma Centers.
Bertagnolli, who now calls Massachussetts home, grew up on a ranch in Wyoming and was raised by first-generation immigrant parents of Italian and French Basque descent, according to the White House. She was educated at Princeton University and attended medical school at the University of Utah.
While Bertagnolli won confirmation easily, there was some pushback from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont who held her nomination up for months in an attempt to get the White House to agree to a plan for lower prescription drug prices.
Sanders and Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman were the only members of the Democratic caucus to vote against confirmation. Thirty-four Republicans also voted no.
In a speech preceding the vote, Sanders called Bertagnolli, "an intelligent and caring person," but said he was not convinced that "she is prepared to take on the greed and power of the drug companies."
Fetterman echoed Sanders' concerns.
Moments later, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington countered.
"Dr. Bertagnolli is the right person to ensure the NIH stays on the cutting edge of innovation and research and fulfills its critical mission to promote health, improve equity, keep our nation competitive and give patients across the world real hope for the future," Murray said just before the vote.