President Donald Trump named former Eli Lilly & Co. executive Alex Azar to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after agency’s past chief resigned amid blowback over his taxpayer-funded private jet travel.
“Happy to announce, I am nominating Alex Azar to be the next HHS Secretary. He will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” Trump tweeted Monday.
(Related: Alex Azar Tops List to Be Next HHS Secretary)
If confirmed, Azar will take over the administration’s management of the Affordable Care Act. Trump and Congressional Republicans have called to repeal the ACA, and the administration has taken steps to destabilize it, such as cutting funding for some programs and refusing to pay subsidies to health insurers. He’ll also be a key figure on drug costs.
Trump has been highly critical of the drug industry, saying that pharmaceutical companies are “getting away with murder” and threatening to use the federal government’s buying power to bring down prices.
However he’s taken no concrete action yet to do much on prices, and the former drug executive’s appointment may continue the trend of strong talk but little action, said Spencer Perlman, director of health care research at Veda Partners, a policy analysis firm.
“It is very unlikely the administration will take aggressive regulatory actions to control prescription drug prices,” Perlman said in a note to clients Monday. “The administration’s tepid response to drug pricing has not matched the president’s heated rhetoric.”
Dan Mendelson, president of Avalere Health, a consulting firm, also didn’t think Azar represented a change in direction on pharmaceutical policy. “His appointment will not change the president’s rhetoric,” Mendelson said in a phone interview.
Before his time at Lilly, Azar served as deputy secretary at HHS under President George W. Bush. One former Obama administration official said that experience could help him at the agency.
“While we certainly differ in a number of important policy areas, I have reason to hope he would make a good HHS secretary,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the last administration and who has been a frequent critic of efforts to derail the Affordable Care Act. Slavitt said he hoped Azar would “avoid repeating this mistakes of his predecessor over-politicizing Americans’ access to health care.”
Azar, who ran Indianapolis-based Lilly’s U.S. operations until earlier this year, has been an advocate for more state flexibility under the Affordable Care Act. That matches up with what Republicans have pushed for, such as in a seemingly stalled bipartisan bill to fund insurer subsidies that help lower-income people with health costs.
As secretary, Azar would have broad authority over the program.
“I’m not one to say many good things about Obamacare, but one of the nice things in it is it does give a tremendous amount authority to the secretary,” Azar said during an interview with Bloomberg TV in June. “There are still changes that can be made to make it work a little better than it has been.”
There are signs that the law is gaining popular support despite the repeal efforts. In recent state elections in Virginia, Democrats won a competitive governors’ race that saw health care emerge as a top issue. In Maine, residents voted to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Early enrollment in Affordable Care Act public exchange plans earlier this month was also up considerably compared to last year.
Trump’s first HHS secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September after his extensive use of private and military jets at taxpayer expense was revealed. Azar must be approved by the Senate.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who heads the Senate Finance Committee that will review Azar’s nomination, called on Trump’s pick to help “right the wrongs of this deeply flawed law.”
“For too long, hardworking, middle-class families have been forced to bear the brunt of Obamacare’s failures in the form of higher premiums and fewer choices,” Hatch said in a statement.
Ron Wyden, the senior Democrat on the panel, said he would closely scrutinize Azar’s record.
“At every turn, the president has broken his promises to American families to lower health care costs, expand access, and bring down the high price of prescription drugs,” Wyden said in a statement.
Azar left Lilly in January, several months after another senior executive was named to succeed then-CEO John Lechleiter. A lawyer by training, Azar previously clerked for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
— Read Trump’s New Acting HHS Secretary Knows the ACA on ThinkAdvisor.