Yesterday morning, November 29th, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held its confirmation hearing on the nomination of Alex Azar to be the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The previous secretary, Tom Price, resigned after reporters discovered he was using taxpayer dollars to fund his traveling in private jets. We have previously written about Alex Azar and how he should take sweeping action to lower drug prices. Yesterday, multiple Senators stepped up to the plate and asked Azar tough questions about reducing drug costs, and he acknowledged that the government needs to act.
The Secretary of Health and Human Services has a wide range of responsibilities, and Senators asked him about a variety of topics, but the issue of skyrocketing drug prices dominated the hearing. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) noted that when Azar was a senior executive at the drug company Eli Lilly the company increased its drug prices, harming consumers. She also observed that Eli Lilly was under investigation by multiple state Attorneys General for raising the price of insulin and called him an "extreme, ideological" nominee. Azar responded by stressing his prior government experience, admitted that drug prices are too high, and said that his expertise and knowledge would enable him to make major reforms and hit the ground running.
Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) all asked him about steps he would take to reduce drug prices, and criticized him when they felt he was giving inadequate answers. Paul urged that consumers be allowed to purchase drugs from other countries. In his answers, Azar opposed allowing importation of prescription drugs but supported promoting generic competition and ending abuses on the patent system. He agreed that companies shouldn't be able to engage in product hopping (minor changes to drugs) to extend their drug patents and stifle competition. In response to a question by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Azar opposed gag orders that prohibit pharmacies from telling their patients about cheaper drugs--he called them appalling.
Other Senators, such as Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), denounced Azar for his time at Eli Lilly, and said he would do little or nothing to reduce drug costs. Warren asked Azar if he was responsible for the insulin price increases over the last decade. Azar answered that he was not involved in insulin pricing, individual actors were responding to incentives, and that the drug pricing system was to blame and needed to be reformed.
However, Azar strongly opposed allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower drug prices. He claimed that Medicare already has negotiations through the three largest pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and that they get very good prices. In reality, PBMs contribute to higher drug prices instead of lowering them.
The hearing ended after three hours, and Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) told Azar that he expects him to be confirmed. There will be another confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Senators should follow the lead of this committee, and demand concrete answers on how Azar will bring down drug prices.