Democrats press HHS nominee Azar on ties to drug industry

HHS nominee Azar faced scrutiny during Senate Finance Committee hearing.

ByABC News
January 9, 2018, 2:53 PM

— -- Democrats pressed President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, on his ties to the pharmaceutical industry during a confirmation hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

HHS, which has a budget of over $1 trillion and over 80,000 employees, has been without a secretary since Tom Price resigned over his use of private jets in September.

“If confirmed, Mr. Azar’s work will impact the lives of every single American," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in opening remarks. "That’s a big job. It requires knowledge, experience, and, most important, strong leadership.”

Azar is no stranger to the political world or HHS, having served during the George W. Bush administration under former HHS Secretaries Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt.

Azar’s former bosses offered glowing reviews of his performance as general counsel, and later as deputy secretary of HHS. But it has been Azar’s work after serving in the government that came under intense scrutiny. Azar earned millions as an executive at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., and Democrats pointed to the rising cost of drugs during his tenure.

Ranking Democrat Ron Wyden, D-Ore., brought out colored posters to point at spikes in drug costs and what he said was the dysfunction of current drug pricing.

PHOTO: Sen. Ron Wyden (R) (D-OR) points to a chart while asking questions during the hearing for Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee, Jan. 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Ron Wyden (R) (D-OR) points to a chart while asking questions during the hearing for Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services nominee, Jan. 9, 2018 on Capitol Hill.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“The system is broken. Mr. Azar was a part of that system,” Wyden said. “Given ample opportunity to provide concrete examples as a nominee of how he’d fix it, Mr. Azar has come up empty.”

President Trump says tackling prescription drug costs is a priority, but some like Wyden see Azar as the fox guarding the hen house. Azar defended his work while at Eli Lilly and said he remains committed to lowering drug costs.

"I don't know that there is any drug price of a branded product that has ever gone down,” Azar said. "Every incentive in the system is towards higher prices,” but Azar said he wants to change that.

He outlined his four main priorities for HHS as lowering drug prices, “making healthcare more affordable, more available, and more tailored to what individuals want,” improving Medicare through technology, and tacking the opioid epidemic.

While Republicans were largely complimentary of Azar, Democrats didn’t hold back from expressing concerns about specific Trump administration health policies and priorities.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, went after Azar over the Trump administration’s push for states to institute work requirements for Medicaid. He asked Azar to define what the Trump administration meant by saying “able-bodied workers” would be required to work but Azar said he could not elaborate.

Azar was also questioned on his support for Graham-Cassidy legislation, which Wyden said would make cuts to Medicaid.

“Slowing the growth of a program is not seen as a cut in my mind or the president’s mind,” Azar said.

At the beginning of the hearing, Hatch expressed his concerns about securing long-term funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“We have a bipartisan agreement that was reported out of committee, and I believe that it improves CHIP for the long-term. Congress has passed patches and fixes, but the time for short term solutions is over. CHIP needs to be extended by January 19, and I’m going to do all I can to make sure we get it done. Children, their families, and states are counting on us.”

The committee still needs to vote on Azar to bring his nomination to the Senate floor for a vote.

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