This week President Trump announced his nomination of Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical company executive, to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Mr. Azar is also a lawyer and health care expert who has a thorough knowledge of the federal government and served as a health official in the George W. Bush administration, which bodes well. However, he has also been lukewarm on reducing drug prices, and we hope that he will adopt a more aggressive stance.
For ten years, from 2007 to 2017, Azar was the president of Eli Lilly's U.S. operations (Eli Lilly is a global drug company headquartered in Indiana). He has a great deal of experience; several groups such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation praised his nomination, and he has a reputation as a smart operator who doesn't stir up drama.
But there are reasons for consumers to be concerned. When Azar led Eli Lilly, the company tripled the price of a popular drug to treat insulin, and it was targeted by a class-action lawsuit that accused it of exploiting the drug pricing system to reap greater profits. In May of this year, Eli Lilly again raised prices on two of its insulin drugs, Humalog and Humulin, by nearly 8%. The company argues that many patients do not pay list prices and that it offers substantial discounts, but even steady price increases above the rate of inflation can harm consumers.
Moreover, Azar has spoken in various venues about drug prices, where he has criticized government efforts to reduce them. At a panel last year in New York, Azar told attendees that "when the government gets involved it is more likely to create perverse incentives and unintended consequences then when the market players can work together to figure that out." There are some encouraging signs; he has not absolutely ruled out government action to promote access to medicines, and is well informed about the issues. Moreover, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was criticized during his nomination, but he has turned out to be a champion of measures to reduce drug prices and make drugs more affordable.
Nevertheless, Azar has already encountered fierce criticism. Senate Democrats have vowed to closely examine and question him, Senator Amy Klobuchar delivered a speech opposing his confirmation, and Senator Bernie Sanders said "the last thing we need is to put a pharmaceutical executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services."
Azar should take swift and sweeping measures to reduce drug prices. We urge him to follow in the footsteps of Scott Gottlieb and work to ensure all Americans can get the medicines they need.