-- The U.S. Senate today confirmed Alex Azar as the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services with a vote of 55-43.
Six Democrats -- Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama -- voted in favor of Azar's confirmation.
It has been almost four months since Tom Price stepped down as secretary of HHS after a Politico investigation showing his use of private jets for official department business became an embarrassment for President Donald Trump and the White House.
Azar, 50, has been praised and criticized for having experience in both government and the private sector. After serving as an HHS administrator in the George W. Bush administration, Azar became a high-level executive at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co.
"With experience both on the company side and the government side of health care, he is now only more experienced and knowledgeable," the Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said on the Senate floor today.
"I think that broad expertise will serve him well, particularly at this critical time when the HHS Secretary will need to be intensely focused on the opioid epidemic and other major problems facing our country.
“No doubt all of these are reasons why we reported Mr. Azar out of the Finance Committee with a bipartisan vote."
But Democrats said Azar's ties to the pharmaceutical industry and his positions on the Affordable Care Act made him an unacceptable choice to lead one of the largest federal agencies dedicated to enhancing the "health and well-being of Americans." In hearings, many Democrats said the price of insulin drugs to treat diabetes more than doubled while Azar was at Eli Lilly.
Azar, who conceded that "every incentive in the system is towards higher prices" for drugs, said he is committed to lowering costs. During his hearing at the Senate Finance Committee, Azar outlined his four main priorities as lowering drug prices, making health care more affordable, improving Medicare through technology, and tackling the opioid epidemic.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Pension and Labor Committee, had urged Democrats to vote against Azar's confirmation.
"We need a voice to reject such damaging ideological decisions and to champion evidence, science and sound policy-making," Murray said. "I do not believe Mr. Azar is that champion.”
The Department of Health and Human Services, one of the largest nondefense agencies in the federal government, has an annual budget of over $1.1 trillion and over 79,000 full time employees.