Big pharma experience shouldn’t disqualify Alex Azar as HHS secretary, Sen. Orrin Hatch says

Alex Azar
Confirmation hearings for Alex Azar as secretary of HHS began today. (Wwsgconnect)

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch opened this morning’s confirmation hearing for Alex Azar as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services by pushing back against critics who say the nominee’s experience in big pharma disqualifies him from serving in the position.

Azar, the former head of Eli Lilly’s U.S. operation, has faced criticism from some Democratic Senators who note that the prices for the pharma company’s drugs doubled under his leadership and wondered how he would work to lower skyrocketing drug prices.

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In his opening statement (PDF), Hatch, R-Utah, said he considers Azar’s experience in the private sector, as well as his six years of experience within HHS during the Bush administration, as reasons why he is qualified for the role. “Mr. Azar’s work in the pharmaceutical industry will give him important insights regarding the impact of policies designed and implemented by HHS. And, when you add that knowledge and background to the years he spent as a senior official at HHS, you have an exemplary resume for an HHS Secretary,” Hatch said.

But Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, argued in his opening remarks (PDF) that Azar had a major role over drug price increases for every product Lilly marketed in the United States. And as chair of the company’s U.S. pricing, reimbursement and access steering committee, Azar never signed off on a decrease for a price of a drug, Wyden said.

In fact, Wyden said, the drug manufacturer more than doubled the prices for drugs to treat osteoporosis, heart disease, ADHD and diabetes while Azar headed Lilly’s U.S. operations.

“This morning the committee will likely hear that this is just the way things work—it’s the system that’s to be blamed. My view is, there’s a lot of validity in that. The system is broken. Mr. Azar was a part of that system. Given ample opportunity to provide concrete examples as a nominee of how he’d fix it, Mr. Azar has come up empty,” Wyden said.

In his initial statement (PDF), Azar said that if he is confirmed, he will work to lower drug prices. And his experience with implementing Medicare Part D when he worked at HHS and his insider knowledge of how insurance, manufacturers, pharmacy and government programs work together, will only help with these discussions.

But, he told Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, later in the hearing, that there is no “silver bullet” to fix the complex issue of drug pricing. Azar said he would work to lower prices by advocating for robust competition in the biosimilar market and going after drug companies that “game” the system by protecting their branded drug patents and delaying competition for generics.

In addition to lowering drug prices, Azar said in his opening statement that his other priorities include making healthcare more affordable, available, and more tailored to what individuals want and need in their care; helping to shift Medicare so it pays for health and outcomes rather than procedures and sickness; and addressing the opioid epidemic through prevention, education, regulation and enforcement efforts.

The confirmation hearing was expected to continue for several hours. FierceHealthcare will continue to update coverage of the hearing throughout the day.