Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive tapped by President Trump to be Health and Human Services secretary, told senators Wednesday that making prescription drugs more affordable would be one of his top priorities.
“Drug prices are too high,” Azar told the Senate health committee, pledging to look at ways to increase competition and stop drugmakers from gaming the system. “I believe I can bring the skills and experiences to the table that can help us address these issues.”
That appeared to satisfy most of the Senate health committee’s Republicans, who praised Azar’s experience at Indianapolis-based drug giant Eli Lilly.
But Azar’s assurance drew skeptical questioning from many Democrats and from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a conservative Republican who grilled Azar on his opposition to allowing Americans to import lower-priced drugs from Europe and elsewhere.
“You’ve got some convincing to make me believe you are going to represent the American people,” Paul said.
Azar, whom Trump nominated to replace Tom Price, would be the first Health secretary to come out of the pharmaceutical industry. Price stepped down in September amid criticism over his use of expensive chartered jets to travel.
The White House has cited Azar’s industry background as an asset at a time when pressure is building on the federal government to rein in the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs.
But many consumer advocates are skeptical he will do anything that threatens drugmakers’ profits.
“If Alex Azar’s nomination is confirmed, then Big Pharma’s coup d’état in the healthcare sphere will be virtually complete,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said Wednesday.
While Azar was at Lilly, the company dramatically increased prices for its insulin product, prompting accusations of price gouging and investigations by officials in five states.
Azar is widely viewed as more pragmatic and less ideological than Price, a staunch conservative who was an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act and many of its quality-improvement initiatives.
Azar, by contrast, suggested one of his top priorities would be using the Medicare program’s leverage over doctors and hospitals to push for better outcomes for patients.
But he also indicated he is interested in looking at ways to loosen health insurance rules implemented by the 2010 healthcare law, a key flashpoint in the ongoing partisan debate over the law, often called Obamacare.
Prior to joining Lilly, Azar served in the Health and Human Services Department under former President George W. Bush, first as general counsel and then as deputy secretary.
He will next appear before the Senate Finance Committee before his nomination is considered by the full Senate.