Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., vowed Monday to vigorously oppose President Donald Trump’s nomination of a former pharmaceutical executive to serve as the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. But for the most part, hospitals and healthcare trade groups came out in support of Alex Azar.
Azar, who served as the head of Eli Lilly’s U.S. operations for five years until he stepped down from the position in January, previously served as deputy secretary of HHS under the George W. Bush administration. Most industry trade groups were pleased with Azar’s combination of work experience within the public and private sectors, plus his understanding of the inner workings of the federal agency
But Sanders was skeptical that Azar is the right choice for the top HHS post, especially as the United States aims to lower skyrocketing prescription drug prices.
“At a time when the United States pays, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, the last thing we need is to put a pharmaceutical executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services.,” Sanders said in a statement. “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.’”
In addition, Sanders said that during Azar’s tenure at Eli Lilly, the corporation earned millions of dollars but dodged taxes while charging Americans “outrageously high prices for life-saving prescription drugs”
“We need an HHS secretary who is willing to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and lower prescription drug prices,” he said, “not one who has financially benefited from this greed. I will vigorously oppose this nomination.”
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Azar has qualifications and experience to get results and he will quickly schedule a hearing on his nomination.
Meanwhile, representatives from the pharmaceutical, insurance and healthcare industries, particularly those that have directly worked with him n his government and private sector roles, issued statements in support of Azar.
FAH: ‘A perfect pick’
Marilyn Tavenner, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, said Azar has the “experience and expertise to combine the best from the private sector with the best of our public programs to make healthcare work for every American.”
Premier, an alliance of approximately 3,900 U.S. hospitals and health systems and roughly 150,000 other providers and organizations, said the organization worked with Azar when he served under the Bush administration During his tenure, the agency worked on some of the early value-based payment models, including the Hospital Quality Improvement Demonstration project.
“We know from that work he understands the need to move away from the perverse incentives in the Medicare fee-for-service payment system and to do so in a fashion that incents high-quality care,” said Susan DeVore, CEO of Premier. “He also appreciates the need to have access to healthcare data and interoperability of health information systems.”
Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, the national advocacy organization for investor-owned hospitals, made similar comments. Kahn called Azar “the perfect pick for the times.” He believes Azar’s years of experience in government service and the healthcare sector makes him uniquely qualified to confront the healthcare system’s biggest challenges, including deliberations over healthcare reform, healthcare quality and cost issues.
HLC: Azar will ‘hit the ground running’
Azar was a member of the Healthcare Leadership Council when he was president of Lilly USA, and he served on the organization’s executive committee. HLC President Mary R. Grealy said she believes that once confirmed, Azar will be able to “hit the ground running,” and will be help bring a “patient-centered, value-focused approach to healthcare policymaking.”
When he worked with HLC, Grealy said that during deliberations, he was a strong and influential voice for health system transformation to achieve greater value as defined by affordability and consistent clinical quality without disparities.
"For as long as I have known and worked with him, he has always steadfastly believed in putting the patient first, and I have no doubt that is the commitment he will bring to HHS," she said.
The National Community Pharmacists Association said in a statement that Azar’s background in the pharmaceutical industry means he understands supply chain issues and players that will be helpful to him in his role at HHS.
Although the Patients for Affordable Drugs said it was concerned that the former drug company executive may not take action on skyrocketing drug prices, Ben Wakana, executive director, said in a statement that Azar is well-qualified for the position.
"He has the chance to stand up for patients because he knows exactly how the drug pricing system is broken," said.Wakana, who previously served as the head of HHS communications under the Obama administration. "If he wants to take meaningful action to lower drug prices, we want to help him."