The Senate Wednesday confirmed an anti-abortion former pharmaceutical executive, Alex Azar, to the nation’s top public health post as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly put forward Azar’s nomination forward Monday night right after voting to end the government shutdown.
The confirmation passed the Senate with a 55- 43 vote, including six Democrats who voted in favor of a candidate with a history of fringe views and close ties to big pharma.
Alex Azar didn't have enough Republican votes to get confirmed HHS secretary.
These six Democrats crossed the aisle to support him:
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) January 24, 2018
Azar will be charged with regulating his friends and former colleagues and a billion-dollar industry that is largely responsible for escalating the nation’s drug epidemic. He will also be in prime position to pass extreme conservative health policy measures — such as enacting draft rules allowing doctors to refuse to perform abortions, according to Talking Points Memo.
In his confirmation hearing, he shared fringe views on a number of health-care topics, including his belief that women’s health-care options should be “balanced” against the views of her employer.
Azar served as the deputy secretary of HHS during the George W. Bush presidency. But his career has largely been defined by his exhaustive work peddling drug policies on behalf of Big Pharma.
From 2012 to around the time Trump took office, Azar served as president of Lilly USA, the largest affiliate of the drug maker mega-giant Eli Lilly and Company, where he worked on public policy and international and federal government affairs. He also served on the board of directors for the drug lobby giant Biotechnology Innovation Organization, according to Politico.
While he was an executive at Lilly, the company tested erectile dysfunction drugs on children as a way to game the patent system for profits, according to reports.
As Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) pointed out, Eli Lilly raised the price of many of the company’s drugs under Azar’s watch and his appointment contradicts promises by the Trump administration to focus on lowering drug costs.
“On Mr. Azar’s watch, Lilly more than doubled the prices of drugs used to treat diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, and ADHD. And these are only some of the drugs under his purview,” said Wyden. “Mr. Azar was a part of this broken system… he has not given a single concrete example of how he would actually change the system, change the system that he said is broken, he won’t give us an example of how he would change it to make it better.”
But Azar fits the mold of many other Trump appointees tasked with heading federal agencies that regulate their former industry. Such was the case for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who worked in agriculture exports; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; a former investor; and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a former big bank and hedge fund head.
And Azar’s former industry has spent millions pushing laws that undermine the DEA’s ability to go after drug distributors. Tom Marino (R-PA), Trump’s nominee to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy withdrew his application after the Washington Post revealed in October he pushed for such a pharma-friendly bill.
There are early indicators Azar will not push back too hard on pharmaceutical companies: During a hearing in November, he agreed that drug prices are too high. But he blamed the “system” (including insurance companies and drug distributors) instead of Eli Lilly, the company that tripled the price of insulin.
On Wednesday, he defended the pharma industry’s position that if the provision in the law were removed that prohibits the federal government from negotiating for lower prices, there would be no difference in price.
The former law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia has made it clear he fully intends to push for extreme conservative policies at HHS.