Alex Azar on Wednesday will make his first public appearance since being nominated by President Trump to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency tasked with managing ObamaCare.
Democrats on the Senate Health Committee are certain to bombard Azar with questions about how he plans to implement ObamaCare, his tenure as a pharmaceutical executive and how he’d lower the rising price of prescription drugs.
Republicans have lauded Azar’s credentials, saying he has the experience needed at HHS — a massive department overseeing a wide range of health-care issues, from Medicare and Medicaid to drug approvals and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Trump tweeted that Azar “will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!”
Azar is a veteran of HHS, having served as its general counsel from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush and as its deputy secretary for two years after that. After leaving HHS, he worked at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly for nearly a decade, most recently as the president of Lilly USA — a post he left in January.
Sen. Patty Murray the Senate Health Committee’s top Democrat, on Wednesday, plans to ask if Azar will run HHS similar to his predecessor, Tom Price, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Democrats charge that the Trump administration has been purposely sabotaging ObamaCare and eroding women’s access to health care.
Azar has made far fewer public comments about ObamaCare than Price, who authored repeal-and-replace bills for years during his time in the House. But in television appearances, Azar hasn’t shied away from bashing the law.
In July, a Fox Business host asked Azar his position on an ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill moving through Congress at the time.
“I think, Stuart, you and I generally agree that the status quo is pretty bad and any change to that that’s productive is a good thing,” Azar said in July, adding he’d like to see some changes to the legislation.
Democrats will also quiz Azar over his tenure at Eli Lilly, questioning why the price of insulin — a lifesaving drug for people with Type 1 diabetes — reportedly tripled during his time at the company. They’ll ask Azar to commit to lowering drug prices if confirmed as HHS secretary and on his plans for doing so, the Democratic aide said.
“In announcing your nomination, the President promised that you would be ‘a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!’ I have several concerns about your ability to carry out the President’s promises,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to Azar Tuesday.
“I am concerned that your tenure as a pharmaceutical executive may attenuate your interest in working to provide the American people with ‘lower drug prices.’ ”
In the 21-page letter, Warren posed 68 questions she’d like written responses to, while also asking Azar to be prepared to answer the questions at Wednesday’s hearing. This included questions on drug pricing, such as if Azar agrees with Trump’s comments that drug companies “are getting away with murder,” what steps he’d take to decrease out-of-pocket costs of medicines and if he believes Medicare should be allowed to negotiate drug prices.
A few Democrats have already come out against Azar’s nomination.
Hours after Trump announced Azar in mid-November, Sen. Bernie Sanders Bernard (Bernie) SandersThe Hill's 12:30 Report Report: Sanders taking steps to correct political weaknesses Susan Sarandon: ‘It wouldn’t be much smoother’ with Hillary Clinton as president MORE (I-Vt.) — a vocal critic of drug companies — said he would “vigorously oppose” the nomination. Sen. Amy Klobuchar Amy Jean KlobucharWomen, Dems leading sexual harassment discussion in Congress: analysis Klobuchar taking over Franken's sexual assault bill Tech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny MORE (D-Minn.) also announced her opposition that day.
“During Mr. Azar’s tenure at Eli Lilly, this multibillion-dollar corporation dodged taxes while charging Americans outrageously high prices for life-saving prescription drugs,” Sanders said in a statement. “We need an HHS secretary who is willing to take on the greed of the pharmaceutical industry and lower prescription drug prices, not one who has financially benefitted from this greed.”
Azar’s supporters say his time working in the drug industry is an asset. They say he understands the ins and outs of the industry, and, thus, knows what needs to be changed.
“In nominating Mr. Azar, the President has chosen someone who is extremely qualified and a respected leader in the healthcare community and who has significant experience in the public and private sector that makes him uniquely qualified to help President Trump solve our nation’s healthcare challenges,” Ryan Murphy, an HHS spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement.
At a conference in May, Azar said, “Let’s start by saying we have a problem. This is not something to put our head in the sand about. Patients are having to pay too much for drugs.”
He added: “[Drug prices] erupted because we’ve seen a complete and fundamental restructuring of health insurance in the United States over the last three to five years.”
The opioid epidemic is another issue likely to crop up at the hearing, as deaths from prescription painkillers, synthetic opioids, and heroin have quadrupled since 1999. In late October, Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, which HHS oversees, and lawmakers will want to know how Azar plans to curb the overdose deaths plaguing the country.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) hails from one of the states the opioid epidemic has hit the hardest.
“The fentanyl, heroin, and opioid epidemic is the most pressing public health and safety challenge facing New Hampshire, and the next Secretary of Health and Human Services must understand the urgent need for robust federal funding for states like ours that have been hardest hit by this crisis,” Hassan said in a statement after meeting with Azar Monday.
Azar was nominated more than a month after Price resigned from office. He stepped down after Politico detailed trips he took on private and military planes costing taxpayers more than $1 million dollars.
Azar’s appearance before the Health Committee is considered a courtesy hearing, as the Senate Finance Committee is the one with the power to send his nomination to the Senate floor.
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