Senate Confirms Alex Azar as New HHS Chief

Kerry Dooley Young

Disclosures

January 24, 2018

The US Senate on Wednesday confirmed a new leader for the vast array of federal health programs, tapping former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar, who already has significant experience at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Along with his experience as a former executive of the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, Azar was the general counsel for HHS from 2001 to 2005 and was the department's deputy secretary during the George W. Bush administration from 2005 to 2007.

The Senate voted 55-43 to confirm Azar as the new HHS secretary. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) joined the majority of Democrats in rejecting the nomination. Paul had jostled with the nominee over the question of drug importation, for which the senator, who is a doctor, has advocated.

Alex Azar appears before the Senate Finance Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 9. EFE/Shutterstock

Democrats said they objected to Azar's views on the future of the Affordable Care Act and questioned whether he could aid efforts to control rising drug prices.

"As a nominee, Mr Azar may try to assure us that he will fight for patients and protect the health of our communities, but after looking at his record, after reading his past statements, after discussing these issues with him, I am alarmed that he might not stand up for women and families," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate's health committee. "I am alarmed that he might not stand up to the pharmaceutical industry. And I am alarmed that he might not stand up to President Trump's agenda driven by sabotage and ideology."

Still, the Trump administration's nominee won the support of seven Democrats and Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent. Azar also appears to have the backing of powerful medical groups, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). The group of cancer specialists on Wednesday said Azar's past experience at HHS "provides him with deep insight into the important role this agency has in ensuring that the nation's healthcare system provides access to high-quality care for all Americans."

"As the former head of a pharmaceutical company, he brings expertise in drug development, along with an understanding of the need to innovate and address the challenges of the rising cost of care," said ASCO President Bruce E. Johnson, MD.

The nominee was questioned at length in two recent Senate hearings, in which Democrats focused on whether he will work to lower drug prices, given his industry background. Other Democrats questioned his commitment to keeping the Medicaid program as is and if he would work to support the Affordable Care Act.

Trump's first HHS secretary, orthopedic surgeon Tom Price, MD, resigned last September. Dr Price, who previously had served in Congress, faced intense criticism and scrutiny for taking government trips on charter and military aircraft when less expensive commercial flights were available.

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