-- President Donald Trump today announced he's nominating Alex Azar to be Department of Health and Human Services secretary, replacing Tom Price.
Azar is a former executive for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and worked as a deputy secretary at HHS under President George W. Bush.
Price resigned Sept. 29 amid investigations into his use of charter jets at taxpayers' expense.
After graduating from Yale Law School, Azar, 50, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and then worked for then-independent counsel Ken Starr on the so-called Whitewater investigation that embroiled the Clinton administration. Azar calls Starr a mentor.
In a Yale Law School student profile, Azar says he “entered health care largely by accident.” After working on the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000, Azar joined the George W. Bush administration as general counsel of HHS. He later became deputy secretary of HHS under Secretary Mike Leavitt.
“I realized I had found my life's calling: to help people around the world live longer, healthier, and happier lives,” wrote Azar about his work at HHS.
Former HHS Secretary Leavitt praised Trump’s pick of Azar.
“Alex is highly competent, he’s experienced, he’s ideologically aligned with the president and he’s been confirmed twice by the Senate for HHS,” Leavitt told ABC News. “There may never have been a nominee better able to hit the ground running.”
“We worked side by side for the implementation of Medicare Part D, on pandemic preparedness and Katrina recovery. He also had complete responsibility for the administrative rulemaking process at HHS which will be used extensively in changing the existing law,” said Leavitt.
After serving at HHS, Azar joined Lilly USA, LLC, an affiliate of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., where he oversaw the commercial side of the business. Azar stepped down from Lilly after more than a decade to start up a health care consulting firm, Seraphim Strategies, LLC.
Trump touted Azar’s experience working with the drug industry in a tweet announcing his pick although his very connection to the pharmaceutical business could raise questions during his confirmation hearings.
Comments on Obamacare
The Trump administration has sought to repeal and then to weaken the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation. Over the course of the past year, HHS has dramatically cut outreach and advertising funding for open enrollment under Obamacare, and President Trump ended cost-sharing subsidies to help fund insurance for low-income individuals.
With the Republican Congress unable to follow through with the campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump has signaled he’s looking for regulatory avenues for dismantling the Affordable Care Act.
Azar’s comments about aspects of the Affordable Care Act signal his potential policy positions as head of the regulatory body overseeing the law.
“It’s certainly circling the drain,” said Azar of the Affordable Care Act during an interview on the Fox Business Network. “Obamacare plans are following the laws of economics. First, if you’re running an insurance company you’ve got to be able to make money, and in order to make money you’ve got to be able to predict risk. The Obamacare system has made it impossible to predict risk.”
“There’s actually fairly few levers that the government can do at this point to stabilize this broken system,” said Azar.
Azar has also said that the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care has been unsuccessful. The potential loss of Medicaid expansion dollars has been a sticking point for some Republican lawmakers from Medicaid expansion states who have welcomed the increase in federal dollars.
“Instead of throwing more money and more beneficiaries into state-run, single-payer programs, we’ve demonstrated that it works to use the government money through private-sector vehicles,” said Azar said in an interview with the Zetema Project in February.
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., praised Trump’s choice to lead HHS. “As a former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and private sector executive, Alex Azar has the qualifications and experience to get results. The Senate health committee will promptly schedule a hearing on his nomination,” said Alexander in a statement.
Critics slam Azar's stance on Obamacare
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that Azar’s confirmation process “will be a referendum on the Trump administration's repeated efforts to sabotage our health care system and raise premiums on millions of Americans.”
“It’s time to turn over a new leaf at HHS," Schumer said. "The next secretary must demonstrate a commitment to lowering premiums, and not sabotaging the Affordable Care Act and our health care system with reckless actions that hurt families. I look forward to reviewing Mr. Azar's nomination.”
Protect Our Care, an advocacy organization that supports the Affordable Care Act and which ran advertising campaigns against Tom Price during his nomination process, blasted Azar in a statement.
"President Trump has nominated in Mr. Azar someone who shares his misguided and factually flawed views on the Affordable Care Act,” said Brad Woodhouse of Protect Our Care in a statement. "The nomination of a new HHS Secretary could be an opportunity for Trump and Republicans to turn the page on their repeal and sabotage agenda, especially in light of last week's election results where Republicans lost across the country with the GOP's unpopular health care agenda being a leading cause.”