Alex Azar Confirmed as New HHS Secretary: Is He the Right Man for the Job?

Can a prior pharmaceutical company president successfully address ever-climbing medication costs in the United States?

Following claims of misusing taxpayer money to charter private jets, in September 2017, Tom Price MD, put in his resignation as the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The controversy surrounding the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) was further fueled when on November 13, 2017, President Donald Trump announced his top pick to fill Dr. Price’s position: Alex Azar.

The Evidence at Hand

Just 11 months before this decision was made, Azar had stepped down from his position as president of the US division of Eli Lilly and Company, a global pharmaceutical company headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. At Eli Lilly and Company, he was in charge of the company’s dealings with the US drug market.

When he first joined the company in 2007, Azar was its top lobbyist and senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications. At that time, the price of the company’s product Humalog, an insulin lispro injection, was just $74. In the decade that followed, its rising price correlated with Azar’s rise to prominence—it jumped nearly 300%.

During Azar’s 5-year tenure as the pharma company’s US president, Humalog would see its steepest increases, climbing from around $125 in 2012 to more than $250 at the point of Azar’s departure in 2017. In 2014, the drug increased 20.8% in price, followed by a 16.9% uptick in 2015, and another 7.5% in 2016.1

The rising price of Humalog has resulted in plenty of backlashes, however, Eli Lilly has been able to deflect most of it, as other companies have also been ramping up prices. Eli Lilly is one of the 3 big manufacturers of diabetes medications, holding rank with Sanofi and Novo Nordisk; in fact, the group has dominated the insulin market throughout the past decade—to the point that they face a class action lawsuit accusing them of fixing price increases.2

Azar was at the helm for Eli Lilly as the company continued to ramp up drug prices. Suddenly, however, it appears that he’s changing his tune.

The Talk and the Walk

“Drug prices are too high. The president has made this clear; so have I,” Azar said in his testimony before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on November 29. “With my extensive knowledge of how insurance manufacturers, pharmacy, and government programs work together, I believe I can bring the skills and experiences to the table that can help us address these issues while still encouraging discovery so Americans have access to high-quality care.”

During his questioning, Azar said he wanted to bolster competition for brand-name drugs and generics to facilitate price decreases—a tactic he reportedly sought from 2005 to 2007 when he was the deputy secretary for HHS during George W. Bush’s administration.

While his testimony supports his expressed desire to “fight gaming the system of patients and exclusivity by drug companies,” his past does not. Many have expressed doubts that someone characterized by the price increases under his reign in the private sector could spur the opposite effect if appointed to public office.

Despite these concerns, on Wednesday, January 17, 2018, Azar was approved by the Senate Committee on Finance as the next head of HHS by a vote of 15 to 12, advancing his nomination to the US Senate for final approval. Notwithstanding the shroud of uncertainty that has clung to him, his nomination was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, January 24, by a vote of 55 to 43. That same day, #SayNoToAzar was a trending hashtag on Twitter.

So, is Alex Azar the right man for the job?

To find out what the physicians are saying, read the full story on MD Magazine.