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Senators grill HHS nominee Alex Azar on cutting drug costs

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HHS secretary nominee Alex Azar, a former Eli Lilly executive, testifies before the Sentate committee.

WASHINGTON — Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive named by President Trump to be the next Health and Human Services secretary, told senators at a full committee nomination hearing that making prescription drugs more affordable would be one of his top priorities.

“Drug prices are too high,” Azar said to the Senate health committee at last month’s hearing, pledging to look at ways to increase competition and stop drug makers 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.

Azar seemed to sail through the first of two hearings on his nomination without making major missteps. But he did not appear to dispel the doubts of Democrats who distrust him because of his experience as a top executive at a major drug maker, Eli Lilly and Co., for 10 years.
In addition to his interrogation by the Democrats, Azar also drew skeptical questioning from Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who grilled him 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 and not Big Pharma,” Paul said.
Azar, whom Trump nominated to replace Tom Price, would be the first HHS secretary to come out of the pharmaceutical industry. Price stepped down in September amid criticism over his use of expensive chartered jets to travel. Azar was deputy health secretary under President George W. Bush.

He would assume control of HHS at a very sensitive time. HealthCare.gov and the Affordable Care Act are in the middle of the first open enrollment period of the Trump era, and Azar’s background in the pharmaceutical industry is raising questions about the president’s campaign promise to bring down the cost of prescription drugs by allowing the government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare and possibly permitting the importation of medicine from Canada.

Azar pledged that if confirmed, he would work “in the interests of all Americans, not in the interests of any trade group, not in the interests of any company.” He added, “This is the most important job I will ever have in my lifetime.”

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.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the senior Democrat on the committee, said to Azar, “As a pharmaceutical executive you raised drug prices year after year. Eli Lilly is currently under investigation for working, under your tenure, with other drug companies to needlessly raise the price of insulin.”

It is widely viewed that Azar is more pragmatic and less ideological than Price, a staunch conservative who was an outspoken critic of the ACA. 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.


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