Alex Azar previously worked in the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
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WASHINGTONÂ â€”Â The Senate on Wednesday voted 55 to 43Â to confirm as Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar, a former drug company executive who has said lowering drug prices will be his top priority.Â
Azar heldÂ top positions at HHS under the George W. Bush administration before working for Eli Lilly and Co.,Â the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant.
Republicans argued his combination of government and private sector experience made him uniquely qualified to replace Trump’s first HHS secretaryÂ â€” Tom PriceÂ â€” who resigned in SeptemberÂ after racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel bills for chartered flights.
“I’ve only been here 42 years, but I can think of very few others qualified to take the helm of this very large ship than Mr. Alex Azar,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “I think that broad expertiseÂ will serve him well, particularly at this critical time when the HHS secretary will need to be intensely focused on the opioid epidemic and other major problems facing our country.”
One RepublicanÂ â€” Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulÂ â€” voted against Azar because of his lack of support for allowing prescription drugs to be imported from other countries where they often sell for much cheaper.
Although most Democrats opposed Azar, six votedÂ for his confirmation even though none had supported Price.
Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, one of the vulnerable Democrats facing re-election this year who supported Azar’s nomination, said Azar has the necessary experience and qualifications. While Donnelly had opposed Price because of his support for changes to Medicare, Donnelly said he can work with Azar on fighting the opioid epidemic.
“He and I have spoken about the need for more resources to combat the opioid abuse epidemic,” Donnelly said in a statement, “and I am confident that he will be a partner as we work toward a more robust federal response to this issue that is devastating families and communities all across our country.â€
Democrats who voted against Azar cited Lilly’s record of raising drug prices and Azar’s criticism of the Affordable Care Act.
While Azar “doesn’t come with the staggering ethical challenges” of Price, said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, he is “aÂ perfect encapsulation of the presidentâ€™s broken promises on prescription drugs and health care overall.”
President Trump has frequentlyÂ attacked drug prices, including accusing pharmaceutical companies of “getting away with murder.”Â But polls showÂ the price of drugs remain a top concern of the public.
Azar said during his confirmation hearing that there’s no single action the government can take to lower prices.
He called reversing the incentive for high list prices â€”Â even if thatâ€™s not the price most people pay after insurance or other factors are consideredÂ â€” the most important nut to crack.Â
Azar also called for increasing competition among drug makers, stopping them from exploiting protections they get from competition under patent laws, and changing federal rules to allow drug companies to be reimbursed based on the effectiveness of their product.
Democrats expressed skepticism that Azar will fightÂ the influential pharmaceutical industry. And Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate health committee, said she’s also concerned about Azar’s past comments that the Affordable Care Act is “circling the drain,” and his support for allowing employers to opt out of including birth control in insurance plans for workers.
“I am alarmed that he might not stand up for women and families,” Murray said. “I am alarmed that he might not stand up to President Trump’s agenda driven by sabotage and ideology.”
Azar has said he would be obligated to make the Affordable Care Act workÂ â€œas well as possible” if he became secretary. And heÂ disputed Democrats’ charge that the administration is trying to destabilize the insurance markets created by Obama’s signature health care legislation.Â But Azar argues the markets are “not working for everybody.” He wants to give states more flexibility in running Obamacare programs, and give consumers more choice on what type of insurance they can buy.
Other than the 52 to 47 vote to confirm Price last year, Azar’s confirmation vote was the narrowest for an HHS secretary in decades. By contrast, he had received unanimous Senate support when he was nominated to serve as the department’s general counsel in 2001, and then as the agency’s No. 2 official in 2005.
Hatch said Azar should have received near unanimous support again if lawmakers would set aside “the partisan and the preconceived notions some have about certain industries.”
HHS Secretary Senate votes:
2017: Price 52-47
2014: Burwell 78-17
2009: Sebelius 65-31
2005: Leavitt (voice vote)
2001: Thompson 100-0
1993: Shalala (voice vote)
1989: Sullivan 98-1
â€” Craig Caplan (@CraigCaplan) January 24, 2018