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Senate confirms former pharma exec Alex Azar as secretary of Health and Human Services

January 25, 2018
Life sciences

Former pharma executive Alex Azar has a new title: secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Senate voted 55-43 to confirm the nomination of Azar, the former head of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly’s U.S. operations, to serve in the role vacated by Tom Price, M.D.

Price, a former congressman, resigned in September after eight months on the job due to controversy over use of private planes for government travel using taxpayer money. President Donald Trump soon tapped Azar to fill the role, saying he would be “a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!”

Azar has unique qualifications because he has already worked at HHS. He served as general counsel for the department from 2001 to 2005 and then became the deputy secretary under then-HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, a position he held for two years.

But not everyone was convinced. Many Democrats opposed his nomination from the beginning, noting his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and questioning whether he would be committed to lowering drug prices. The skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs came up frequently during the course of his confirmation hearings during the Senate vote on Tuesday to advance his nomination.

On the Senate floor today, several Democrats, including Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said they would vote against his nomination. In addition to their concerns that drug prices rose under Azar’s watch while he was at Eli Lilly, they also fear he will work with the Trump administration to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Azar, whom he called the “right man for the job.”

“In his impressive testimony before the Finance Committee, Mr. Azar discussed his intention to confront head-on the opioid crisis that is hurting so many families across the country, including in my home state of Kentucky. He made clear that he will place an important priority on prevention, education and enforcement to halt the advance of this scourge,” McConnell said.

As the head of HHS, Azar will be responsible for overseeing $1.13 trillion in department spending and supervising research and administering health programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

By Ilene MacDonald

Source: Fierce Healthcare

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