FDA Commissioner Hamburg to step down

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg will step down after nearly six years as one of the Obama administration's top public health officials.

Hamburg oversaw drug approvals, food safety, tobacco control and other health initiatives during a tenure that made her one of the longest-serving FDA chiefs in modern history.

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Stephen Ostroff, the agency's chief scientist, will temporarily fill the position, when Hamburg departs at the end of March.

The commissioner wrote in a note to staff that her tenure had been "the most rewarding of my career" and that she has "very mixed emotions" about her decision to leave the FDA. No future plans were announced.

A former health commissioner of New York City, Hamburg is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and previously worked for the National Institutes of Health.

Her tenure at the FDA was marked by new public health challenges, including rising obesity, an increase in prescription drug abuse, heightened risk from antibiotic resistant bacteria and the unprecedented Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The agency gained authority to regulate tobacco for the first time in 2009, under Hamburg's leadership. The FDA is now moving to impose rules on e-cigarettes. 

A noncontroversial figure, Hamburg largely avoided political fights with Republican lawmakers that bogged down leaders like former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusFederal investigators concluded Ryan Zinke's MAGA socks violated Hatch Act Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? MORE.

Nonetheless, her tenure did not come without its challenges, including a deadly outbreak of meningitis tied to compounded drugs and a slew of food safety scares.

Hamburg was also involved in the controversy over whether Plan B emergency contraception should be sold over the counter to young teenagers.

Her decision to make the medication available was initially overruled by Sebelius. The FDA later approved prescription-free Plan B for all ages.

The White House on Thursday lauded Hamburg for "tireless service over the past six years," calling her an effective leader of the agency.

"She's leaving a legacy of advancements that include biomedical innovation, modernizing the food safety system, and reducing death and disease caused by tobacco," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Earnest said the president would be searching for a replacement with "impeccable medical and scientific credentials."

"When the president does make an announcement, we're confident that he will appoint the kind of individual that will merit strong bipartisan support in the Senate," he added.

A leading House Republican also offered praise for Hamburg in a statement Thursday.

"Peggy has been a great partner and participant in the 21st Century Cures initiative," said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), referring to a legislative effort to accelerate cures.

"I am grateful for her support of this important initiative and look forward to continuing to work with leaders at the FDA and in the administration as the legislative process continues this year."

Hamburg's decision comes about three weeks after another top administration health official, Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services chief Marilyn Tavenner, announced she was stepping down.

This story was updated at 2:30 p.m.

Justin Sink contributed.