January 18, 2018

Senate Finance Committee advances Azar's HHS sec nomination

Daily Briefing

    The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted 15-12 to recommend Alex Azar's confirmation for HHS secretary to the full Senate, which is expected to approve the nomination.

    Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) was the only Democrat on the panel to vote in favor of Azar's nomination.

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    Fifty-one votes in the full Senate are needed to confirm President Trump's nominee. Republicans hold 51 seats in the Senate, while Democrats hold 49. In the instance of a tie, Vice President Pence would cast his vote as a tie breaker, though such a situation is not likely, as the Senate is expected to confirm Azar for the post, Axios' "Vitals" reports. 

    About Azar

    Azar served as general counsel and deputy secretary at HHS under former President George W. Bush's administration. Azar from 2007 until January 2017 held executive-level positions at Eli Lilly and Company. In 2007, he worked as the company's senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications, and in 2012, he began overseeing the company's U.S. operations. The company is among three drugmakers at the center of a class-action lawsuit that alleges insulin makers and pharmacy benefit mangers colluded to raise prices.

    Azar's priorities

    During testimony before the committee, Azar outlined four areas he would prioritize if confirmed as HHS secretary:

    • Addressing high prescription drug prices;
    • Combating the opioid misuse epidemic;
    • Making health care more affordable and accessible; and
    • Using Medicare to help transition the U.S. health system from a fee-for-service to a value-based payment system.

    Some Democrats during the hearing questioned Azar's commitment to lowering prescription drug prices given his industry ties. However, Azar during the hearing discussed potential ways to address rising drug prices, such as allowing the government to negotiate drug prices in some instances. For example, he said, "If the government is the purchaser, let's say for instance, we are going to be buying (drugs) as part of the opioid crisis program, and we're directly buying that and supplying it out to states and first responders, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the government negotiating that."

    Azar during the hearing also signaled his openness to mandatory payment models—representing what could be a major shift in the Trump administration's policy should he be confirmed. In response to a comment from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) that some payment models under the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation should be mandatory, a point on which he and Azar "might have a disagreement," Azar replied, "Senator, we actually don't disagree there."

    Azar said, "I believe that we need to be able to test hypotheses, and we have to test a hypothesis, I want to be a reliable partner, I want to be collaborative in doing this, I want to be transparent and follow appropriate procedures, but to test a hypothesis there around changing our health care system, it needs to be mandatory as opposed to be voluntary to get adequate data, then so be it" (Abutaleb, Reuters, 1/17; Howell, Washington Times, 1/17; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 1/18).

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