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Trump Taps Health Care Expert As Acting Top White House Economist

Tomas Philipson, University of Chicago professor speaks at a conference in 2008. Philipson was named as the acting chair of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers.
Fred Prouser
Tomas Philipson, University of Chicago professor speaks at a conference in 2008. Philipson was named as the acting chair of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers.

President Trump has named Tomas Philipson as acting chair of his Council of Economic Advisers. Philipson, who is already a member of the council, is a University of Chicago professor who specializes in the economics of health care.

He previously served as a top economist at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Philipson takes over from White House economist Kevin Hassett, whose departure was announced on Twitter last month.

"I want to thank Kevin for all he has done," Trump tweeted. "He is a true friend!"

"I'm leaving on very good terms with the president," Hassett said in an interview. He stressed that two years is a typical tenure for CEA leaders, many of whom come to the White House on loan from universities.

"One of the reasons why CEA has stayed an objective resource over all these years is that the chairmen have tended to turn over after a couple of years, which is not really enough time to go native," Hassett said. "If you stay here too long, then you might end up being too fond of all the political types over in the West Wing and it might be a little bit harder to tell them the difficult truths."

Hassett, a sunny optimist who co-authored the book Dow 36,000 at the height of the dot-com bubble, hasn't felt the need to tell many difficult truths. While many forecasters predict a slowdown in the U.S. economy this year, Hassett continues to project economic growth of at least 3%.

Colleagues describe Philipson as a top-notch economist and a creative problem-solver.

"Tom is a very fresh thinker," said Mark McClellan, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration who recruited Philipson to work for him, first at the FDA and later at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. "Tom had a great background in health economics and wanted to do work that was very policy relevant. So it was a win-win."

Although Philipson grew up in Sweden, where the vast majority of health care costs are covered by the government, he stresses market-oriented reforms and consumer choice.

"Coming from the University of Chicago, it's probably not surprising that as an economist he would envision a big role for consumers in improving how markets function," McClellan said. "I would emphasize as well, though, that he has a good understanding of government institutions and the role of regulation."

At the FDA, McClellan said, Philipson helped institute a system in which drugmakers and medical device manufacturers paid higher fees to facilitate faster approvals. At CMS, he worked on Medicare Advantage — a program that allows about a third of Medicare recipients to get their benefits through private insurers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.