Trump Picks Ex-Pharma Exec Alex Azar to Head HHS

November 13, 2017

President Donald Trump today announced that he is nominating former pharmaceutical company executive Alex Azar II to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and preside over the execution ― either the elimination or implementation ― of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Like Trump, Azar takes a dim view of the law. In television interviews, Azar has called the ACA "a fundamentally broken system" that was "failing completely on its own terms, and nobody impacted it from the outside."

Alex Azar (Source: Evan Vucci/AP)

In Azar, Trump also has an experienced HHS hand. Azar served as the department's general counsel from 2001 to 2005 in the George W. Bush administration and then as its deputy secretary, the number-two position, from 2005 to 2007.

It's Azar's last high-profile job as president of Lilly USA, the largest affiliate of drugmaker Eli Lilly, however, that has raised the most eyebrows about Trump's pick for HHS. The president campaigned on the promise to lower the cost of prescription drugs by having government programs such as Medicare negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, which he said in January were "getting away with murder."

If confirmed by the Senate, Azar will be Trump's lead person in dealing with Big Pharma. Azar worked at Eli Lilly for a decade after his stint at HHS.

Trump tweeted today that Azar "will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!"

Jack Lewin, MD, who runs a healthcare consulting firm called Lewin and Associates, told Medscape Medical News that Azar is a "solid choice for HHS secretary based on his excellent performance and experience as deputy secretary under President Bush," particularly in regulatory oversight. However, Azar's tenure at Lilly "predicts little progress in lowering pharmaceutical prices, an alleged goal of the president," said Dr Lewin, a long-time executive in organized medicine who most recently helmed the Cardiovascular Research Foundation.

Azar lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. If he becomes HHS secretary, Azar would be the third major healthcare appointee in the Trump administration with ties to the home state of Vice President Mike Pence, Indiana's former governor. The other two are Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, Indiana's former state health commissioner and a Pence appointee; and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who helped oversee Medicaid expansion in Indiana while Pence was governor.

HHS is now led by Acting Secretary Don Wright, MD, MPH. He took over in September after orthopedic surgeon Tom Price, MD, resigned while facing intense criticism and scrutiny for taking government trips on charter and military aircraft when less expensive commercial flights were available.

Follow Robert Lowes on Twitter @LowesRobert


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