In a move critics said betrays President Donald Trump's expressed commitment to lowering drug prices and taking on the power of Big Pharma, Trump on Monday announced that he has chosen Alex Azar, former top executive of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
"It would be unrealistic to expect a reformer from Trump, but a professional apologist for this abusive industry is an insult to us all."
—Will Bunch, Philly.com
While Trump insisted in a tweet on Monday that Azar "will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices," many argued that the president's choice of an industry insider will only be a further boost for the bottom lines of drug companies—and a disaster for public health.
"Trump tells us Azar will be a 'star' who will lower prescription prices. Maybe he should have asked the six million diabetic Americans whose insulin prices have more than tripled under Azar's watch at Eli Lilly," Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines Program, said in a statement. "Eli Lilly is notorious for spiking prices of this century-old isolated hormone. During Azar's tenure as president and vice president, Eli Lilly raised the price of Humalog by 345 percent from $2,657.88 per year to $9,172.80 per year."
"Why not Freddy Krueger?" RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, wrote on Twitter following Trump's announcement. "Just when you think it can't get anymore disgraceful. Pity the poor people who need medication and safety—that would be all of us."
If approved, Azar will be deeply involved in regulating the industry he has worked for over the last decade. "Even for D.C.'s ever-spinning revolving door, Alex Azar is a pretty blatant case," The Daily Beast's Lachlan Markay noted, highlighting the fact that Azar previously served as deputy HHS secretary under George W. Bush before joining the pharma giant Eli Lilly in 2007 as senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications. In 2012, Azar became president of Lilly's U.S. operations, a position he held until January of this year.
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As Common Dreams reported last month, consumer advocates have been raising alarm about Azar's nomination since news reports emerged suggesting he was Trump's top choice. In a recent statement, Public Citizen warned that "if Alex Azar is confirmed as HHS secretary, Big Pharma's coup of the healthcare sphere will be virtually complete."
"Americans understand, passionately, that drug company price gouging leads to rationing of care. It is unethical and must end," added Public Citizen president Robert Weissman. "But it is highly unlikely that a pharmaceutical company executive who has made passionate arguments against price restraints is going to advance real reform."
"It is highly unlikely that a pharmaceutical company executive who has made passionate arguments against price restraints is going to advance real reform."
—Robert Weissman, Public CitizenAzar has made clear in recent public appearances that he sides with Trump and the GOP in their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which—if successful—would strip healthcare from tens of millions of Americans. Azar has also expressed opposition to Medicaid expansion and backed right-wing efforts to turn the program into block grants.
As The Daily Beast's Sam Stein notes, Trump's decision to tap an industry favorite like Azar for a key cabinet position is hardly surprising, given that more than 50 percent of the president's nominees for Senate-confirmed administration spots "have ties to the industries they're supposed to regulate."
"It's hard to imagine a worse choice for America," Philly.com columnist Will Bunch wrote of Azar, pointing to the pharmaceutical industry's role in perpetuating the opioid epidemic. "It would be unrealistic to expect a reformer from Trump, but a professional apologist for this abusive industry is an insult to us all."