Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Margaret Heckler, The Age of Aids, on Frontline

interview: margaret heckler

[photo of Margaret Heckler]

Margaret Heckler was President Reagan's secretary of health and human services from March 1983 to December 1985. Here she says AIDS was her number one priority, but that she had to balance her department's response against the Reagan administration's fiscal priorities. Heckler maintains that preexisting Public Health Service budgets were enough and that additional funding to fight AIDS was unnecessary. "I think that really, we could not have gained anything more by increasing the cash expenditures," she tells FRONTLINE. "We were in the right direction. We were placing the emphasis on those who could provide the answers. In a peculiar case, this was not a problem that money could solve; it was a problem that the scientists could solve." Heckler also addresses the infamous April 1984 press conference where she and virologist Robert Gallo announced his discovery of the AIDS virus. Heckler suggested a vaccine would be available within two years. "That turned out to be totally incorrect," she acknowledges. "But at that time, we did not know that the replication of the virus would be so difficult -- and it still is a problem. ... That is the story of AIDS. There were new discoveries, lots of myths that we could easily dispel, but then very serious medical and scientific questions that had to be dealt with." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 11, 2006.

[When did you first hear of AIDS?]
I was quite surprised to learn from a conversation with David Winston, who had been a staff member of the Senate Health Committee under then-Sen. [Robert] Schweiker, and who had served with Gov. Reagan at the Health Department in California. … I asked his recommendations on the priorities I might set, and he said, "Oh, well, you must begin with AIDS." I said, "AIDS?" I had never heard of AIDS. "What is AIDS?" He said, "This is a disease that is killing young people, and the hospital wards in San Francisco are crowded -- in fact, bulging." I said, "Well, I have never been briefed on this; I have never heard of it." I had just gone through the whole confirmation process, and it had never been mentioned.
I just returned to the department and asked to see Dr. [Edward] Brandt who was the [assistant health secretary] and I just said, "Dr. Brandt, I just heard of a disease that has never been mentioned to me before: AIDS." He said, "Madame Secretary, you don't want to know." I said: "I may not want to know, but I must know. I am responsible for this department, for everything that happens here, and this is frightening. I have just heard the worst stories about it." He then went on to give me a brief summary.
I immediately realized that this was a serious crisis, and my first step was to go to the White House and talk to [Chief of Staff] Ed Meese, because … I knew that this was potentially going to go over the budget, and I wanted to let him know, give him a heads-up on that. I told Ed about the disease, that I felt this was the most serious priority I had … and said that if I need for the funds, I have to come back to him, and I would do so. …
Subsequently, many times, I did mention AIDS [to the White House], and I brought people from the [Health and Human Services] Department to our domestic policy meetings -- I was chairing that meeting -- and for the Domestic [Policy] Council. I felt it was very important to exchange views and brief key people at the White House, which happened throughout the time that I was HHS secretary. …
I felt that since this was such a serious issue that I would become very involved in the total management of it, the oversight, and my goal was really to drive the department, with its scientific expertise, into resolving some of the basic medical questions for the patients as well as for the whole society.