Healthcare groups welcome Alex Azar as new HHS Secretary

HHS again has a permanent leader as former Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar was sworn in as the department’s secretary on Jan. 29—four months to the day after his predecessor, Tom Price, MD, resigned over his use of publicly-funded charter flights.

Azar was sworn in at the White House by Vice President Mike Pence. In remarks afterwards, President Donald Trump said Azar’s top priorities will be tackling the opioid epidemic, which would mean being “tough on doctors” and drug companies, according to Trump, as well as taking actions to lower prescription drug prices.

“Prescription drug prices is going to be one of the big things and whenever I speak to Alex, I speak to him about that prior to anything else, and I know you can do it, you know the system and you can do it because it's wrong,” Trump said.

Democrats (as well as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky) had cited Azar’s history in raising prices as a pharma executive in opposing his nomination. Groups representing the healthcare industry, however, congratulated him on assuming the secretary post and pledged to work with him on a variety of policy priorities.

“Secretary Azar recognizes that the fee-for-service payment system does not appropriately reward outcomes,” said Jerry Penso, MD, MBA, president and CEO of the American Medical Group Association. “During his confirmation hearing, Azar stated that Medicare can ‘shift the focus in our healthcare system from paying for procedures and sickness to paying for health and outcomes.’ AMGA agrees with this sentiment and will be a resource for Azar and his team as we work together to remove the obstacles to value-based care and create a health care system that recognizes and rewards value.”

America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) president and CEO Marilyn Tavenner said the group appreciated Azar’s perspective on addressing high list prices for prescription drugs, and would work with him on “improving affordability, access, choice and value for every American.” The Medical Device Manufacturers Association (MDMA) said it hopes he focuses on expediting access to new devices and therapies, while Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed) president and CEO Scott Whitaker referenced their overlapping tenure at HHS during the administration of President George W. Bush.

“His experience in both the private and public sectors will serve him well managing the department’s complex bureaucracy,” Whitaker said.

Joining HHS as Azar’s chief of staff will be another Bush-era official: Peter Urbanowicz. Having served as the department’s deputy general counsel from 2001 to 2003, Urbanowicz went onto the general counsel’s role at Tenet Healthcare before moving into consulting.