Trump’s pick for health secretary messages he’s no Tom Price

 In Politics

Alex Azar is pictured. | AP Photo

Alex Azar, President Donald Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary, plans to emphasize that he’s not tethered to the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. | Paul Sancya/AP Photo

Backers stress his experience as a top Bush HHS official; Democrats are wary of drug industry ties.

Updated


To Republicans, President Donald Trump’s pick for Health and Human Services secretary is competence personified — an able manager who can get the agency back on track after the tumult of Tom Price’s brief tenure and forced resignation.

To Democrats, Alex Azar is a pharmaceutical industry shill who knows a lot more about raising drug prices than lowering them.

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But even those planning to grill Azar at his first confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate HELP Committee have kept their criticism to a minimum, compared with their outcry over other Trump nominees.

They may not vote for him, but Democrats recognize Azar as a pragmatic conservative with a long track record at HHS, including on public health — and, perhaps, a willingness to work across the aisle on some issues.

“He’s a different type of person. He’s got a different experience set than Tom Price,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran CMS under the Obama administration and who has been a bitter and visible critic of the Trump team and their determined efforts to repeal the health law. “There are reasons to want to be hopeful here.”

Azar, a former Eli Lilly executive who also spent six years at HHS under President George W. Bush, is a harsh critic of Obamacare, but not a tear-it-all-down zealot.

He’s a reliable defender of the pharmaceutical industry, who espouses mainstream GOP rhetoric on drug prices. And while he’d be a loyal supporter of Trump administration priorities, people close to Azar say he won’t bring a radical personal agenda into the agency.

In short, the 50-year-old HHS veteran and former pharmaceutical executive represents a sharp departure in many ways from his tea party predecessor — and he’ll likely spend his time before the Senate HELP Committee emphasizing that. This panel is the first to hold a confirmation hearing on Azar; Senate Finance, which is the committee that will ultimately vote on the nominee, hasn’t scheduled its hearing yet.

Azar, who has ties to Vice President Mike Pence, is expected to mount a strong defense of his decade at drug giant Eli Lilly, portraying his ascension to president of the company’s U.S. operations as experience that gives him valuable insight into the inner workings of the nation’s health care system. He maintains that system is broadly responsible for skyrocketing drug prices, and not the pharmaceutical industry alone.

“I would approach this not for any industry, not for any past affiliation, but to serve all Americans,” Azar said Wednesday morning, emphasizing that he’s not tethered to the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.

Republicans point out his tenure at Eli Lilly amounts to just one piece of a resume that spanned the health care spectrum, including stints as both general counsel and deputy secretary at HHS, where he worked for secretaries Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt.

“He understands that his role as the secretary of HHS is to manage the department, and I don’t think he’s beholden to anybody in that job other than the president,” said Scott Whitaker, who worked with Azar at HHS and later recruited him to the board of biotech trade group BIO. “Alex is his own man, and he’s going to do what he thinks is best.”

That won’t shield him from his most intense critics, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who harbor deep reservations about his connection to industry players like Whitaker, who now helms medical technology group AdvaMed. Sanders has already declared that he’ll oppose Azar’s nomination.

Warren is among those who could hammer him over Eli Lilly’s tripling of its insulin prices — a decision that came during the tail end of Azar’s tenure and attracted the attention of both state and federal regulators.

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