Alex Azar Tapped as New HHS Secretary

Health Insurance

November 16, 2017

In September, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned as head following a political scandal over his use of chartered jets for government travel. His position has since been left vacant. On Monday, November 13, President Trump nominated Alex Azar to the role, a somewhat controversial choice given the president’s repeated charges against what he believes to be a corrupt and inflated pharmaceutical industry.

Azar, a former top pharmaceutical executive at global drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, also has experience working for the HHS, serving as its deputy secretary under Secretary Mike Leavitt during former President George W. Bush’s second term.

The nomination of Azar has been met with mixed reviews. Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) cite Azar’s experience and qualifications as beneficial to the role for which he’s been nominated. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic response has been harder. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed outrage over what he believes are the current administration’s “repeated efforts to sabotage our health care system.” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (California) and Sen. Ron Wyden (Oregon) took more noncommittal views, saying they would hold Azar “accountable” for upholding the Affordable Care Act as law.

Outside Congress, reactions have largely been positive, if somewhat hesitant, given Azar’s history as a former deputy secretary and his extensive background in business, law, pharmaceuticals and public policy. Presidents and CEOs of major interest groups, including the American Hospital Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, and the Federation of American Hospitals, support Trump’s pick as HHS secretary while the presidents of Public Citizen, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare each have expressed critical doubt about the president’s choice.

For the latter half of his tenure at Eli Lilly, Azar served as president of the company’s U.S. division, a credential that raises eyebrows among those who hoped that President Trump would fulfill his promises to crack down on pharmaceutical spending. Still others believe that Azar’s resume bolsters his ability to do just that, arguing that his experience at the helm of a drug company uniquely qualifies him for the task.

It’s expected that Azar, a conservative lawyer who worked with both Kenneth Starr and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, will uphold Trump’s vision of bringing an end to the Affordable Care Act.

According to Mike Leavitt, former secretary of the HHS and Azar’s former boss, Trump’s nominee will use his “deep knowledge of regulatory processes” to shift implementation of the healthcare law to a Republican ideology. Azar also believes in letting states have greater control over their Medicaid programs, a belief he shares with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma.