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Backers Praise HHS Nominee Alex Azar’s Experience; Critics Worry Over Drug Prices

By Steven Porter  
   November 16, 2017

The former head of Eli Lilly’s U.S. operations has worked in public and private posts alike, a major asset in the eyes of some.

Organizations representing the healthcare industry have greeted President Trump’s pick for HHS secretary with largely positive responses. Those opposed have voiced concerns that the nominee’s allegiances could align more closely with pharmaceutical companies than consumers.

Alex Azar, JD, was president of Indianapolis-based drug giant Eli Lilly & Co.’s domestic operations from 2012 until earlier this year, when he left to launch his strategic consulting firm Seraphim Strategies LLC. When the president tweeted Monday that Azar would be nominated to replace former HHS Secretary Tom Price, the announcement prompted a slew of criticisms tying Azar to allegations involving Lilly’s drug-pricing practices.

“Choosing a top pharma executive to promote lower prices is like employing a lion to herd your sheep or cattle,” said Deborah Burger, RN, copresident of National Nurses United (NNU), in a statement condemning Azar’s nomination and denouncing Lilly’s past practices in the U.S. and abroad.

Lilly is among three companies defending themselves against a class-action lawsuit, for example, that alleges the firms drove up their own profits by exploiting the drug-pricing system, as Politico’s Sarah Karlin-Smith reported.

Even so, Azar’s boosters in the healthcare sector are numerous, with many organizations praising the former pharmaceutical executive’s previous work in public service. Azar was HHS deputy secretary during former President George W. Bush’s second term.

“He has the experience and expertise to combine the best from the private sector with the best of our public programs to make healthcare work for every American,” said Marilyn Tavenner, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).

Charles “Chip” N. Kahn III, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals (FAH), praised Azar as “uniquely qualified” for the job, based on his past work for both the government and private industry.

“I have worked with Mr. Azar in the past and think he is the perfect pick for the times,” Kahn said. “His steady hand of leadership will be critically important as the deliberations over health reform and the many healthcare quality and cost issues proceed.”

Steven Porter is editor at HealthLeaders.

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