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Senate panel endorses Trump's pick for Health secretary

Senate panel endorses Trump's pick for Health secretary
Alex Azar, President Trump's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, testifies recently on Capitol Hill. (TNS)

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday backed President Trump's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, clearing the way for Alex Azar to be confirmed by the full Senate.

A former drug executive, Azar is expected to succeed Tom Price, Trump's first Health secretary who was forced to resign last year amid reports that he routinely used expensive charter jets at taxpayer expense.

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Azar is less controversial than Price, though his confirmation was shadowed by reports he traded extensively in healthcare stocks while he was a congressman.

Azar is expected to garner several Democratic votes when his confirmation comes before the Senate.

Many Republican lawmakers have praised Azar's experience at drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co. and his work as a senior official at the health agency under President George W. Bush, when he helped implement the Medicare Part D drug program and the Medicare Advantage program.

"His record shows that he is more than capable of leading HHS," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said at Azar's confirmation hearing.

Azar — who as head of the mammoth agency will oversee the Medicare and Medicaid programs, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has pledged to prioritize key issues important to both Republicans and Democrats, including the opioid epidemic, the burden of healthcare costs on Americans and the rising price of pharmaceuticals.

"Drug prices are too high," Azar told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in November, pledging to look at ways to increase competition and stop drugmakers from gaming the system.

But Azar's work at Lilly, which dramatically raised prices on its insulin product while he was at the company, has made many consumer advocates skeptical he will take on the powerful pharmaceutical industry.

"His central message was, yes, medicine prices are too high, but the problem is 'the system' and 'incentives,' not the big pharma companies that leverage their monopoly power to charge exorbitant amounts," said Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, remain deeply concerned that Azar will continue the Trump administration's efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act by weakening oversight of insurance companies and making it harder for low-income Americans to access health coverage through the law, often called Obamacare.

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