WASHINGTON — President Trump’s second health secretary won Senate approval Wednesday. Alex Azar will take on the leadership of a sprawling department shaken by the administration’s tumultuous first year.
The 55-43 vote to confirm the former drug company and government executive as secretary of Health and Human Services was largely along party lines.
A 50-year-old Ivy League-educated lawyer, Azar says he has four main priorities: to help curb the high cost of prescription drugs, make health insurance more affordable and available, continue bipartisan efforts to focus Medicare payments on quality, and confront the growing opioid addiction epidemic.
HHS has been without a Senate-confirmed secretary since Tom Price resigned last fall, amid an outcry over his use of costly private charter aircraft for official travel. As health secretary, Price had been a key supporting player in Trump’s ill-fated campaign to roll back President Obama’s health care law, an effort that fell far short of the full “repeal and replace” Republicans long promised.
Price’s sudden exit created concern about the direction of HHS, a trillion-dollar department that plays a major role in the economy and accounts for about one-fourth of the federal budget. The department is responsible for health insurance programs covering more than 130 million people, drug and food safety, disease detection and prevention, and advanced medical research.
Azar, who had served in senior HHS posts under former President George W. Bush, had the support of much of the health care industry. Some Democratic health policy experts who worked with him previously described him as steady, knowledgeable, and willing to hear both sides. During Senate hearings on his nomination, Azar avoided calling the Obama health law “Obamacare,” a popular name for it that some Democrats consider pejorative.
But Azar’s pharmaceutical ties drew opposition from consumer groups. Most Democrats and even some Republicans questioned whether he can deliver on his promise to help lower drug costs.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Azar “came up short” when given a chance to convince Democrats he’d be an independent voice.
After leaving the Bush administration, Azar spent 10 years as a senior executive of drugmaker Eli Lilly, which has been criticized for raising the price of insulin and other widely used medications. Before resigning from Indianapolis-based Lilly last year, Azar built a financial portfolio now worth between $9.5 million and $20.6 million, according to disclosure records filed with the Office of Government Ethics.
Azar says he’s his own man. “I don’t have pharma’s policy agenda,” he told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “This is the most important job I will have in a lifetime, and my commitment is to the American people.”
— Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar