Trump picks Alex Azar to lead Health and Human Services

 In U.S.
President Trump has selected Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and a top health official during the George W. Bush administration, to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

In announcing that he is nominating Azar to be secretary of the government’s largest civilian department, the president turned to a health policy insider and conservative thinker. Azar spent a decade at Eli Lilly and Co., including five years as president of Lilly USA, its biggest affiliate, before stepping down in January to work as a health-care consultant. He previously was HHS general counsel, then served for two years as the department’s second-in-command.

Republicans predicted that, if confirmed, Azar would pursue Trump’s goals to tilt health-care policies in a more conservative direction through executive action. Leading Democratic health policy experts, while not sharing Azar’s views, said he is well qualified for the post. His ties to the drug industry drew some rapid criticism, however.

In announcing his decision on Monday, Trump tweeted that Azar “will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” He has a close rapport with the department’s top political appointees as well as Vice President Pence.

Azar has been highly critical of the Affordable Care Act, saying in interviews in recent months that the law was “certainly circling the drain” and that many of its problems “were entirely predictable as a matter of economic and individual behavior.”

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In a June interview on Bloomberg Television, Azar said the administration could alter the implementation of the health-care law even if congressional Republicans failed to repeal much of it. “One of the nice things in it is it does give tremendous amount of authority to the secretary of HHS,” he said.

He also supports converting Medicaid from an entitlement program covering everyone who is eligible into block grants, a polarizing and long-standing GOP goal. He opposed expansion of the program under Obamacare to people with slightly higher incomes, something most states chose to pursue.

Azar boasts sterling conservative credentials, having clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before working under special counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate Bill Clinton’s failed Whitewater real estate investments. Still, administration officials and Democrats alike expect he could work more deftly with competing health-care interests and politicians than his predecessor, Tom Price. Revelations that Price racked up more than $1 million in expenses by making official trips on noncommercial aircraft forced his departure.

The White House plans to send the official nomination to the Senate on Tuesday, according to deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley.

As expected, Azar’s selection was widely praised by congressional Republicans. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he plans to schedule a courtesy hearing on the nomination “promptly.” As a former HHS official and private-sector executive, “Alex Azar has the qualifications and experience to get results,” Alexander added.

Senate Democrats have begun preparing for Azar’s confirmation proceedings. They intend to focus on his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, his position on high drug prices and the way he would continue implementing Obamacare. On Monday, they used Azar’s selection as an occasion to bash anew the Trump administration’s health policies. “It’s time to turn over a new leaf at HHS,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said in a statement.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the health committee, said in a statement that she wants “to understand whether [Azar] is willing to stand up to President Trump and his Administration to ensure the needs of all patients and families are put first, whether science or ideology will drive his decision-making, and whether he plans to continue the Administration’s ongoing and unprecedented attack on women’s constitutionally protected health care rights.”

And Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold the official confirmation hearing on the nomination, said he would “closely scrutinize Mr. Azar’s record and ask for his commitment to faithfully implement the Affordable Care Act and take decisive, meaningful action to curtail the runaway train of prescription drug costs.”

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, antiabortion groups praised Azar’s work for Scalia and another conservative jurist and said they will listen for his commitment to reversing Obama administration policies on the issue.

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