Alex Azar, a former 10-year executive of drug company Eli Lilly & Co., was sworn in Monday morning as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). He was confirmed by a mostly party-line vote of 55-43 in the U.S. Senate on January 24. Azar served as Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Supporters of his appointment see him as seasoned on industry matters and an experienced former HHS member. However, detractors challenge his ability to attack the primary issues facing HHS without bias. They note Azar’s significant time in the pharmaceutical industry and highlight former consultancy work at health insurance companies and biopharmaceuticals.
Dominant Issues Currently A Priority At HHS
- Curbing the rising costs of prescription drugs
- Improving the current access and affordability of health insurance
- CREATES Act – addresses big pharma tactics barring generic drugs from entering the marketplace
- Addressing the opioid epidemic
- Pushing for the allowance of Medicare drug price negotiation
Critics argue that a former healthcare lobbyist and drug company executive doesn’t bring the diverse skill set necessary for the job. However, some Democrats did vote in his favor, including Chris Coons of Delaware. “I disagree with most of the Trump administration’s health care policies,” Coons said, “but HHS needs a competent leader.” Several nonpartisan health policy experts who worked with him at HHS testified that he was knowledgeable and willing to hear all sides of an issue before making decisions.
Alex Azar Facing Heightened Scrutiny
Another key point, Alex Azar begins with substantial concerns from consumer groups regarding conflicts of interest. They say the prevailing issues at HHS and industries regulated by the agency share significant overlap with Azar’s former employers and industries. His $9.5 – $20 million financial portfolio also includes ties to these same companies. As a result, watch as the potential for conflict of interest is at the forefront of any examination of his leadership and decision-making.
Prior HHS, Private Sector & Ken Starr Experience
An Ivy League-educated attorney, Secretary Azar enters with previous top-level experience leading the 79,000 employees of the HHS. The Department of Health and Human Services is a trillion dollar department that absorbs one-quarter of the federal budget. In 2001, his tenure at HHS included a four-year stint as General Counsel, immediately followed by appointment to Deputy Secretary. He held the latter position from 2005 until 2007, after which Azar joined Eli Lilly.
Alex Azar is a familiar name to anyone who closely watched the Whitewater controversy surrounding President Bill Clinton. He was chosen by Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr to serve as Associate Independent Counsel from 1994 to 1996 during that investigation.