In the wake of Tom Price’s resignation, there’s been one clear front-runner for the head of the Department of Health and Human Services: Alex Azar. This won’t be his first go-around in the department; he’s previously served as deputy secretary of HHS under the George W. Bush administration. But what else do we know about the nominee?
In truth, Mr. Azar’s resume is impressive. Most recently, he left Eli Lilly in January, after five years as its head. As a former pharmaceutical executive, Mr. Azar has had extensive experience with prescription drug regulations, among numerous other relevant healthcare issues. He’s also known as an outspoken advocate against skyrocketing drug prices, which pairs well with President Trump’s rhetoric regarding the increases during his campaign for the presidency. But it’s not just his experience in all things pharma that makes him a viable nomination.
Not only has Mr. Azar already served as the deputy secretary of HHS, he’s also worked with Eric Hargan, who is currently serving as the acting secretary for the department. Both men served under the Bush administration, and have accumulated vast knowledge of the department’s inner workings during their respective tenures. Mr. Azar has crafted a reputation of being a “detail-oriented bureaucrat who understands how to work the regulatory system to get things done.” Mike Leavitt, who served as HHS secretary when Mr. Azar was deputy says that he is likely to use his position to alter the Affordable Care Act—or at least make it more friendly to Republican ideals. An example of this is Mr. Azar’s preference of moving Medicaid authority over to states, rather than allowing the federal government to allot funds. This would allow states to become “better stewards of the money”, as he described in an interview in February. Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, also supports this shift in control of Medicaid funds.
Azar has earned the support of numerous figures in government and healthcare alike: notable examples include former HHS secretaries Michael Leavitt and Tommy Thompson. Republican lawmakers, too, support the President’s nominee: Senator Todd Young (R-IN) among their number. In healthcare, Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs, said this of Mr. Azar: “(He) is well-qualified and has the chance to stand up for patients because he knows exactly how our drug pricing system is broken. If he wants to take meaningful action to lower drug prices, we want to help him.”
On the flip side, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has voiced apprehension about Mr. Azar’s appointment. The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, he reportedly told USA Today that he intends to “closely scrutinize” Azar’s record and his commitment to “take meaningful action to curtail the runaway train of prescription drug costs.”
However, Mr. Azar remains a nominee for the moment, as he will have to be confirmed before officially assuming leadership of HHS. If he is voted in, he would be in control of one of the largest federal agencies in the country, with a budget of over $1 trillion. Under his jurisdiction would be both the Medicare and Medicaid programs, as well as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.