Trump pick to lead HHS faces senate questions on drug prices

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(Bloomberg) — Senators were set to grill President Donald Trump’s selection to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about his close ties to the pharmaceutical industry and plans for running Obamacare.

Nominee Alex Azar was an executive at drugmaker Eli Lilly & Co. until January, a role that Democrats say raises concerns about whether he will take on high drug prices. Azar is set to take questions on his views before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, one of two committees he’ll face as part of the nomination process, on Wednesday.

“He is certainly going to need to address our concerns that he comes from big pharma,” Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat who sits on the committee, said in an interview. “This is an industry that has not been cooperative at all, and that’s putting it mildly, in terms of drug prices that are of such concern to so many working and middle-class families.”

Azar told the committee in opening remarks that drug prices are a primary concern he will focus on, though he didn’t elaborate on how he would bring down costs.

“I believe I can bring the skills and experiences to the table that can help us address these issues, while still encouraging discovery so Americans have access to high quality care,” Azar said.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the committee, said the panel will hold a hearing on drug prices Dec. 12 to hear from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which is expected to release a report on the topic on Thursday.

Administration Inaction
Trump has frequently raised the issue of high drug costs but hasn’t taken any direct action to contain them. In public remarks earlier this year, Azar blamed insurers and managers of prescription plans for soaring medicine costs, an argument often made by drug companies.

But Democratic senators seemed to have more questions for Azar than direct lines of attack, noting they don’t know a lot about him.

“What we need to see from the new nominee is somebody who’s committed to the health-care safety net, whose knowledge of the pharmaceutical issue enables him to find better solutions to pharmaceutical costs,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat on the health panel.

Kaine said he’s also interested to see how Azar plans to manage the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Trump has backed various failed attempts by Republicans in Congress to overturn the health law and his administration has taken steps to weaken it.

“I want to see if this is the guy who’s going to be part of the wrecking crew that’s hurt people,” Kaine said. “Insurance companies are being very plain about why premiums are going up and it’s that the administration is trying to sabotage the law. They’re entitled to some certainty.”

Azar told the committee making health care more affordable and available will be another priority for him.

“Under the status quo, premiums have been skyrocketing year after year, and choices have been dwindling,” Azar said. “We must address these challenges for those who have insurance coverage and for those who have been pushed out or left out of the insurance market by the Affordable Care Act.”

Under Tom Price, who resigned as HHS secretary in September amid a scandal over his use of private jets at taxpayer expense, the department stripped funding for advertising open enrollment for Obamacare plans, and cut off money for workers who had helped consumers choose coverage. Trump has also stopped making payments to insurers meant to help defray health-care costs for low-income Americans.

Emphasizing Experience
Republicans have touted Azar’s background, including as deputy health secretary under President George W. Bush.

“I see your broad experience as one of your principle assets,” Senator Alexander told Azar during opening remarks at the hearing.

Azar met on Monday with Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who is chairman of the Finance Committee. Hatch’s panel, which must vote on Azar before the full Senate considers his nomination, hasn’t scheduled a hearing.

Hatch said Azar “demonstrated he has the gravitas to take the reins at the Department of Health and Human Services and lead the agency in tackling the skyrocketing insurance premiums and shrinking health-care options under Obamacare and ensuring Medicare and Medicaid are around for generations to come.”

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