Trump names for­mer drug exec to lead HHS

Democrats pledge scru­tiny of Azar for po­ten­tial conf licts

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - NATION & WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON — Turn­ing to an in­dus­try he’s re­buked, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Mon­day picked a for­mer top phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and gov­ern­ment ex­ec­u­tive to be his Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­re­tary, over­see­ing a $1 tril­lion depart­ment re­spon­si­ble for ma­jor health in­sur­ance pro­grams, med­i­cal re­search, food and drug safety, and pub­lic health.

The nom­i­na­tion of Alex Azar is un­usual be­cause HHS sec­re­taries have tended to 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 an­nounc­ing the nom­i­na­tion Mon­day morn­ing.

Trump has a track record of mak­ing in­dus­try-friendly nom­i­na­tions, such as tap­ping for­mer ExxonMo­bil CEO Rex Tiller­son as sec­re­tary of state and wealthy in­vestor Wil­bur Ross as sec­re­tary of com­merce.

But the pres­i­dent also has been a scathing critic of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try, both as a can­di­date and as pres­i­dent.

Azar, 50, a lawyer by train­ing, has spent most of the past 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 seen as an ex­pert on gov­ern­ment health care reg­u­la­tion.

As sec­re­tary, Azar would be re­turn­ing to HHS af­ter serv­ing in se­nior depart­ment posts in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. Now, 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.

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

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s track record on health care to date is ob­jec­tively abysmal,” said Sen. Ron Wy­den of Ore­gon, se­nior Demo­crat on the Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, which would send Azar’s nom­i­na­tion to the full Se­nate. “I will closely scru­ti­nize Mr. Azar’s record.”

Sen. Patty Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., flagged a po­ten­tial con­flict of in­ter­est. “I am

... in­ter­ested in how, given Mr. Azar’s pro­fes­sional back­ground, he be­lieves he can fairly ex­e­cute any sig­nif­i­cant ef­fort to lower drug prices for pa­tients,” she said in a state­ment.


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