HHS secretary nominee Alex Azar tells Senate panel that reducing drug prices would be his top priority

If he’s confirmed as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar vowed that he would work to lower escalating drug prices.

Azar, the former head of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly’s U.S. operation, told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during his confirmation hearing this morning that “drug prices are too high” and the costs must be more affordable.

“The president has made this clear, so have I,” he said.

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Azar, who previously worked for HHS under the Bush administration as a general counsel and later as the deputy secretary, said he believes his experience in both the public and private sectors will help him tackle the problem. Although he didn’t offer specifics on how he intends to address the issue, he called for more competition for generic and branded drugs to help lower costs and the need to fight the ability of drug manufacturers to “game the system” by putting limits on patents and exclusivity.

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But several Senators questioned Azar on how he could make a promise to lower drug costs when under his leadership, Eli Lilly raised the prices of insulin and test strips for diabetes by 200%. Azar didn’t directly answer the question but acknowledged that insulin prices are significant and the “system has to be fixed.”

Although Senate Democrats had indicated they would grill Azar on the high cost of drugs and the pharmaceutical manufacturers role in pricing, Sen. Rand Paul, l, R-Ky, also took a hard line against his ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Paul told Azar he was not convinced that he would represent the American people and not big pharma.

Paul asked Azar about his opposition to allow consumers to purchase imported and safe drugs from Europe and Canada, a position that President Donald Trump supports. Azar said he would support the purchase of imported medications that were reliable and safe. Rand said he wanted Azar to tell him why the drugs in the European Union aren’t safe and how he’d make them safe. “If you can’t do that, I can’t support you,” Rand said.

But Todd Young, R-Ind., noted that actions Azar took as general counsel under the Bush administration saved consumers billions of dollars in prescription drug prices. Azar said that during his tenure the agency was able to put out a rule that only allowed pharma companies to extend a patient for 30 months instead of allowing them to take advantage of filing new patents to get another extension. That action, Azar said, saved consumers $34 billion over 10 years and the rule was later put into statute under the Medicare Modernization Act.