Ex-pharma exec picked to head HHS

Alex Azar was pres­i­dent of drug­maker Lilly USA

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Gre­gory Korte and Jayne O’Don­nell Sen. Ron Wy­den, D-Ore.

WASH­ING­TON – Pres­i­dent Trump’s plan to nom­i­nate a for­mer phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany ex­ec­u­tive to be his top health of­fi­cial got an of­ten-wary re­ac­tion Mon­day by those fo­cused on drug pric­ing and safety.

If con­firmed by the Se­nate, Alex Azar would re­place Tom Price, who re­signed in Septem­ber amid a scan­dal over his use of char­ter air­craft for per­sonal and of­fi­cial travel.

Un­til Jan­uary, Azar was the pres­i­dent of Lilly USA, the In­di­anapolis­based maker of such house­hold-name pre­scrip­tion drugs as Prozac, Cialis and Methadone. He now serves on the board of HMS Hold­ings, a Texas com­pany that helps health in­sur­ance com­pa­nies cut costs, and runs his own biotech and health in­sur­ance con­sult­ing com­pany, Seraphim Strate­gies.

“A for­mer ex­ec­u­tive with Lilly who does not like Oba­macare: How can this be good for drug prices, plan spon­sors and pa­tients?” asked Su­san Hayes, whose com­pany an­a­lyzes drug ben­e­fits for com­pa­nies and unions.

Azar pre­vi­ously served in the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (HHS) in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, as gen­eral coun­sel and deputy sec­re­tary. He was con­firmed for both po­si­tions by a unan­i­mous voice vote.

For­mer HHS sec­re­tary Tommy Thomp­son says Azar will not be in­flu­enced by his for­mer em­ployer and is well-po­si­tioned to deal with the chal­lenges ahead.

Azar’s ten­ure as gen­eral coun­sel at HHS was marked by two ma­jor firsts, Thomp­son says. The morn­ing of the 9-11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, Azar drafted the pa­per­work “within the hour” to de­clare the first health emer­gency, says Thomp­son. That al­lowed a plane to fly to New York with med­i­cal sup­plies for the vic­tims from the World Trade Cen­ter.

Soon af­ter, when let­ters that in­cluded the white pow­der form of the dis­ease an­thrax were mailed anony­mously around the coun­try, Azar joined Thomp­son when the sec­re­tary ne­go­ti­ated with a drug maker to get a lower price. In this case, it was for the an­tibi­otic Cipro.

Azar brings with him solid con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials: Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Yale Law School, he clerked for Supreme Court Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia. He also worked un­der spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor Ken­neth Starr on the White­wa­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton.

As Trump’s Health sec­re­tary, Azar would man­age Trump’s re­luc­tant en­force­ment of the Af­ford­able Care Act, the Obama-era health in­sur­ance law that re­quires Amer­i­cans to ob­tain health in­sur­ance or pay a tax. Trump also has ac­cused phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies of “get­ting away with mur­der” in set­ting drug prices.

His nom­i­na­tion goes to the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, where Chair­man Or­rin Hatch, R-Utah, said Azar would be “at the “tip of the spear” to right the wrongs of Oba­macare.

But Democrats im­me­di­ately ex­pressed skep­ti­cism that Trump’s nom­i­nee could lower health care costs — in­clud­ing the price of pre­scrip­tion drugs.

“I will closely scru­ti­nize Mr. Azar’s record and ask for his com­mit­ment to faith­fully im­ple­ment the Af­ford­able Care Act and take de­ci­sive, mean­ing­ful ac­tion to cur­tail the run­away train of pre­scrip­tion drug costs,” said Sen. Ron Wy­den of Ore­gon, the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee.

“Health care is too per­sonal to be driven by pol­i­tics, but that is what the lead­er­ship of HHS has of­fered so far.”

David Mitchell, founder of Pa­tients for Af­ford­able Drugs, vowed to work with Azar on low­er­ing drug prices if he com­mits to the task, but “we’re not hold­ing our breath based on what the ad­min­is­tra­tion has done so far.”

Mitchell, who has the in­cur­able blood can­cer mul­ti­ple myeloma, says the fact Azar spent 10 years at Lilly is par­tic­u­larly trou­bling.

“Af­ter all, Lilly is one-third of the pow­er­ful in­sulin car­tel that has driven up in­sulin prices 300% in the last decade,” said Mitchell.

“On the other hand, what peo­ple do be­fore they en­ter govern­ment is not nec­es­sar­ily de­ter­mi­na­tive of what they will do. Maybe he will use his po­si­tion to help to help pa­tients and con­sumers by low­er­ing drug prices.”

Other con­sumer ad­vo­cates were more pes­simistic. Kim Witczak, who is a con­sumer rep­re­sen­ta­tive on some Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA) pan­els, called the nom­i­na­tion an­other ex­am­ple of the “fox guard­ing the hen­house.”

Trump an­nounced the pick via Twit­ter from Manila, where he is on a five­na­tion trip.

Thomp­son says Azar will be do­ing what Trump and the Amer­i­can pub­lic — not his for­mer em­ployer — want.

“Once Alex Azar puts on the hat and the man­tle of be­ing HHS sec­re­tary, he’ll be do­ing what is the nec­es­sary ob­jec­tive of the de­part­ment and of all cit­i­zens and that in­cludes the pres­i­dent of the United States,” Thomp­son says.

“Health care is too per­sonal to be driven by pol­i­tics, but that is what the lead­er­ship of HHS has of­fered so far.”

Alex Azar, Pres­i­dent Trump’s nom­i­nee to head the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. 2006 FILE PHOTO BY EVAN VUCCI/AP

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