Trump Nominates Former Big Pharma Exec As Next HHS Secretary

By Victoria Kim 11/16/17

If confirmed, the new HHS secretary will replace Tom Price, who resigned in September after controversy arose regarding his use of private charter planes.

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump announced his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services via tweet on Monday (Nov 13). “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!” 

So far, Republicans have hailed Trump’s choice, hopeful that Azar, with his background in both the private and public sector, can roll back the Affordable Care Act which he's called a “fundamentally broken system.”

If Azar is confirmed by the Senate, he would head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and many more.

Azar would be replacing former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who resigned in September after controversy arose regarding his repeated use of private charter planes that cost over $300,000 in taxpayers’ money. Since Price’s resignation, Eric Hargan has been serving as Acting Secretary of HHS.

Azar’s experience working in both government and the pharmaceutical industry has drawn both praise and suspicion. During the George W. Bush administration, he served as general counsel and deputy secretary at HHS. Azar also spent nearly a decade at Eli Lilly & Co, eventually becoming president of the company’s U.S. division from 2012-2016.

Jonathan Weiner, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University, says Azar’s “conservative creed” may not please Democrats, but he “arguably is one of the most qualified” of any of Trump’s cabinet nominees to date, adding that his accomplished background in government and the drug industry indicates that he is “an extremely competent policy wonk, healthcare expert, and manager of huge organizations.”

Azar’s former boss, Bush-era HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, says his experience in Big Pharma means he knows “the way the distribution system works,” allowing him to effectively “solve the problems within the pharmaceutical industry” as Health Secretary.  

However, critics find Azar’s ties to Eli Lilly troubling. The global drug company, which produces Cialis, Cymbalta and Prozac, was the first to mass produce penicillin and was the first distributor of methadone. The company brought in over $21 billion in revenue in 2016.

Some wonder how Azar will achieve Trump’s goal of lowering prescription drug prices, when Eli Lilly is somewhat notorious for raising its prices on drugs. Politico points out that prices for the company’s best-selling insulin drug more than tripled while Azar led the company’s U.S. division.

This past May, prices for two of Lilly’s insulin products, Humalog and Humulin, increased again by nearly 8%, the New York Times notes.

Senate Democrats say they plan to scrutinize Azar’s record as part of the Bush administration and as a Big Pharma executive.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr