His pick? Alex Azar, the former U.S. president of drug giant Eli Lilly and Co. This would put the pharma industry in charge of regulating its own exorbitant prices and it seems likely that his private interests would swamp aspirations towards public service.
A stroll through Azar’s history would make him seem relatively innocuous — he’s a Yale educated lawyer who clerked for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. During George W. Bush’s presidency, he was general counsel and deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
Azar then left to become vice president and then president of Lilly USA, LLC. He’s even been quoted saying that patients pay too much for prescription drugs, then going on to talk about the role of insurers, and prescription benefit managers contribute to how patients experience high drug prices.
His choice to join Eli Lilly’s staff was questionable at the time, given that he had previously been an administrator overseeing investigations into the corporation’s creation of marketing materials for unapproved use of one of their products.
In a typical case of the revolving door of Washington, D.C., Alex Azar left his post at HHS to take on leadership at one of the biggest pharmaceutical corporations in the country – one that is notorious for raising the price of it Insulin products by more than one thousand percent since 1994.
During Azar’s tenure as vice president and president of Eli Lilly, the corporation increased the list price of Humalog insulin by 345 percent from just over $2,600 to more than $9,000. While price gouging consumers, the corporation spent millions to lobby Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other administrative agencies — $5.7 million in 2016 alone.
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Eli Lilly is also named in a class action lawsuit which alleges that the corporation colluded with Novo Nordisk and Sanofi in order to keep the prices in the U.S. insulin market increasing over time. Much of the activity in the case occurred during Azar’s time as the President of Eli Lilly USA.
Azar’s statements on drug prices show a bias towards big pharma. When asked about drug prices at the Veeva Sumit on May 8, 2017, he avoided addressing price controls, limitations on high drug prices, or even admitting the prescription drug industry’s role in setting high drug prices. He pivoted to the insurance industry as a culprit.
Azar has also called for lower barriers for regulation and safety of prescription drugs in multiple remarks, saying that regulators have set an “unrealistically high bar for new innovations to clear.”
Public support for lowering drug prices is at an all-time high, with Americans from both major parties backing the idea to lower drug prices. Even Donald Trump has repeatedly called for reform, calling out prescription drug corporations for “getting away with murder.”
The Trump administration’s appointments for HHS secretary tell an entirely different story. Tom Price was riddled with scandal over investments made in pharmaceutical corporations while he was working on a trade agenda that directly benefited those corporations. After Price was ousted for unethical behavior, Trump has decided to double down on the influence of the industry by appointing a former drug corporation president to head the agency.
Azar’s resume is full of experience both in the private and public sectors of health care and to some that resume may make him a more competent choice for HHS Secretary than his predecessor. Azar’s major conflict of interest and previous statements suggest that he is not prepared to run the agency that could work towards the top issue for many Americans — lowering drug prices.
Alex Azar’s nomination to Health and Human Services undercuts the administration’s message on lowering drug prices, and Senate should not confirm Azar to the role.