Trump names choice for health sec­re­tary

Alex Azar, 50, spent sev­eral years with drug gi­ant Eli Lilly.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ri­cardo Alonso-Zal­divar

Alex Azar, once an ex­ec­u­tive at phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Eli Lilly, worked at the agency un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

Turn­ing to an in­dus­try he’s re­buked, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Mon­day picked a for­mer top phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and gov­ern­ment ex­ec­u­tive to be his health sec­re­tary.

If con­firmed, Alex Azar would over­see a $1 tril­lion depart­ment re­spon­si­ble for ma­jor health in­sur­ance pro­grams, in­clud­ing “Oba­macare,” as well as med­i­cal re­search, food and drug safety, and pub­lic health.

The nom­i­na­tion of Azar is un­usual be­cause Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­re­taries have come from the ranks of elected of­fi­cials such as gov­er­nors, lead­ers in academia and medicine, or top ex­ec­u­tive branch man­agers — not in­dus­tries reg­u­lated by the depart­ment.

“He will be a star for bet­ter health­care and lower drug prices!” Trump tweeted in a morn­ing an­nounce­ment. Trump has a track record of mak­ing in­dus­try-friendly nom­i­na­tions, such as for­mer ExxonMo­bil CEO Rex Tiller­son as sec­re­tary of state and wealthy in­vestor Wil­bur Ross as sec­re­tary of com­merce.

But Trump also has been a scathing critic of the drug com­pa­nies, both as a can­di­date and as pres­i­dent.

Azar, 50, a lawyer by train­ing, has spent most of the last 10 years with phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Eli Lilly, ris­ing to pres­i­dent of its key U.S. af­fil­i­ate be­fore leav­ing in Jan­uary to start his own con­sult­ing firm. He’s also seen as an ex­pert on gov­ern­ment health care reg­u­la­tion.

As sec­re­tary, Azar would be re­turn­ing to HHS af­ter serv­ing in se­nior posts in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. He would have to scrupu­lously avoid con­flicts with Lilly’s far-reach­ing in­ter­ests, from drug ap­proval to Medi­care re­im­burse­ment. The drug­maker has drawn crit­i­cism from pa­tient ad­vo­cacy groups for price in­creases to one of its big­gest prod­ucts: in­sulin, used to treat high blood sugar for nearly 100 years.

Azar’s ear­lier HHS nom­i­na­tions in the Bush era sailed through the Se­nate. This time, he’ll face Democrats wary of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s un­yield­ing quest to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Top Democrats in Congress were skep­ti­cal, but also said they hoped Azar would bring a shift from an ide­o­log­i­cal hard line on “Oba­macare.”

“It’s time to turn over a new leaf at HHS,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Demo­cratic leader.

Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., flagged a po­ten­tial con­flict of in­ter­est, ques­tion­ing how Azar “can fairly ex­e­cute any sig­nif­i­cant ef­fort to lower drug prices for pa­tients.” Mur­ray is the se­nior Demo­crat on the Health, Ed­u­ca­tion, La­bor and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee.

But com­mit­tee chair­man Sen. La­mar Alexan­der, R-Tenn., cast Azar as a prob­lem solver, say­ing “he has the qual­i­fi­ca­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence to get re­sults.”

In­sur­ers and for-profit hos­pi­tals also re­acted pos­i­tively, while the Pub­lic Ci­ti­zen ad­vo­cacy group likened Azar’s nom­i­na­tion to a “coup d’etat” by drug com­pa­nies.

Amer­i­cans con­sis­tently rank the high cost of pre­scrip­tion drugs among their top health care pri­or­i­ties, ahead of di­vi­sive is­sues like re­peal­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s health care law.

Trump has been a sharp critic of the in­dus­try. “The drug com­pa­nies, frankly, are get­ting away with mur­der,” he said at a Cab­i­net meet­ing this fall. Prices are “out of con­trol.”

If con­firmed, Azar would join the club of Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials from big busi­ness.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS 2006

Then-Deputy Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Alex Azar meets re­porters at the HHS Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton in 2006. Azar held se­nior HHS posts in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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