Trump pick to lead HHS to face Senate committee

President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, will appear before a Senate Health Committee panel Wednesday, where he’ll likely face tough questions about his ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

A top executive with Eli Lilly for nearly nine years, Azar would replace Tom Price, who resigned in September amid a scandal over his use of private planes while leading the Department of Health and Human Services.

Azar served as general counsel and deputy secretary of the agency under former President George W. Bush. He then joined Eli Lilly, becoming president of Lilly USA in 2012. As part of his role there, Azar was on the board of directors of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade group. He left Lilly USA and BIO in January and now runs a consulting firm.

When Trump unveiled his pick for health secretary on Twitter, he called Azar “a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” The president campaigned on lowering drug prices but has yet to take any real steps on the issue.

Azar’s views and actions on drug prices quickly drew scrutiny.

As deputy HHS secretary, Azar pushed for more free competition in the pharmaceutical and medical device markets. Government cost containment measures serve as a barrier to advances in treatments, he said in at least two speeches in 2006.

“The more governments do this, the more innovation is put at risk,” said Azar, who also said he supported greater price transparency for consumers. “Instead, consumers are served best by free competition. Strong competition creates choices and better prices and benefits [for] everyone. And it encourages sustainable innovation.”

“In sum, a vigorous and profitable drug industry is not a problem to be solved, but a goal to be encouraged,” he concluded.

More recently, Azar has said that patients are paying too much for drugs, but it’s largely because of the greater prevalence of high-deductible plans, according to a report in an industry publication. But the solution doesn’t lie with the government.

“It’s something for insurance and pharma to work together to solve as opposed to the government,” he said.

Democrats and critics, however, say choosing Azar is like having the fox watch the hen house.

“The nomination of Alex Azar, the former head of Eli Lilly’s U.S. operations, shows that Trump was never serious about his promise to stop the pharmaceutical industry from ‘getting away with murder,'” said Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota tweeted that she would oppose Azar’s confirmation.

If his nomination is successful, Azar would also be responsible for overseeing Obamacare, which Trump has vowed to dismantle. HHS has already taken several steps that are expected to limit participation in the exchanges in 2018, including slashing the open enrollment period in half and cutting advertising and support for it.

Azar has called the Affordable Care Act a “fundamentally broken system” and noted the government has “fairly few levers” to fix it.

“It’s certainly circling the drain,” he said on Fox Business Network in May.

Azar will also appear before the Senate Finance Committee, which has yet to schedule his confirmation hearing.