Senate committee advances Alex Azar’s nomination as HHS Secretary

The Senate Finance Committee voted 15-12 to advance former Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar’s nomination as HHS Secretary to the full Senate, with one Democrat joining all Republicans in support.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, was the lone Democrat to vote yes. Most Democratic senators have been critical of Azar’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry, including Eli Lilly’s hikes in insulin prices during his tenure at the company and opposition to certain proposals aimed at lowering drug prices, including allowing Medicare Part D to negotiate prices or allowing pharmaceuticals to imported from other countries.

“In our discussions, I was disappointed that Mr. Azar declined to commit to supporting more funding for communities hard-hit by the opioid epidemic,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate health committee which first questioned Azar as the HHS nominee. “He failed to persuade me that he can effectively lead any effort to lower drug prices given his tenure at Eli Lilly, where he worked to raise drug prices on patients. He indicated in our discussions that he would continue the Administration’s harmful plan to create Trumpcare by sabotage.”

Assuming Carper supports the nomination again during the full Senate vote, Azar already has the numbers to be confirmed. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, have already announced they’ll support his nomination, while only one Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has hinted at opposing the pick over Azar’s past in the pharmaceutical industry.

The few major healthcare organizations which have weighed in on Azar’s nomination have been supportive, such as the Federation of American Hospitals and the American Medical Group Association (AMGA). AMGA’s president and CEO Jerry Penso, MD, praised Azar in an op-ed for The Hill for listing the transition to value-based care as one of his top priorities at HHS if confirmed.

“For too long the perverse incentives created by the fee-for-service payment system have led health care astray,” Penso wrote. “Azar has the endpoint of policy right, ‘a system that rewards health and outcomes.’ We are ready to help him clear the roadblocks to that destination.”

The fiercest opposition to Azar has come from a coalition of more than 60 groups, led by liberal consumer rights advocate Public Citizen and including liberal-leaning healthcare-centric organizations like National Nurses United, National Physicians Alliance and Physicians for a National Health Program.

“A former prescription drug company executive with a history of spiking the prices of lifesaving medicines simply is unqualified to address the needs of our national health care system,” the groups wrote in a Jan. 3 letter to Congress.