Former Eli Lilly exec picked to head HHS questioned by Senate Finance Committee

Alex Azar, President Donald Trump's nominee to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, testifies Nov. 29, 2017, during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Azar, nominated to take over the job of outgoing Health Secretary Tom Price, who resigned over his use of private jets, once defended a government official who spent public money on golf fees, steak dinners and Super Bowl tickets. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (WISH) — Former Eli Lilly and Co. executive Alex Azar appeared before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday to answer questions on how he would run the Health and Human Services Department if confirmed as its secretary.

President Donald Trump nominated Azar in November after Tom Price resigned in September after a scandal involving Price’s use of private jets to travel on taxpayer dollars.

“Drug prices are too high, Sen. (Ron ) Wyden. I’ve said that, I said that when I was at Lilly,” said Azar in the hearing, making one of several references to lessons learned while spending nine years at the helm of the pharmaceuticals giant based in Indianapolis.

Before becoming president at Lilly, Azar was deputy secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.

“Through my experience helping to implement (Medicare) Part D and with my extensive knowledge of how insurance manufacturing, pharmacy and government programs work together, I believe I bring skills and experiences to the table that can help us tackle these issues,” Azar said.

In his opening statements, Azar outlined four main goals for the department: lower prescription drug prices, lower insurance premiums, changing the nation’s health care payment plan for an outcome-based model, and tackling the opioid epidemic.

“We need aggressive prevention and education, regulatory and enforcement efforts to stop over prescribing and overuse of these legal and illegal drugs. And we need compassionate treatment from those suffering from dependence and addiction,” Azar said. “These are serious challenges that require a serious mind and sense of purpose. If confirmed I will work with the superb team at HHS to deliver serious results.”

Since his nomination Azar has been challenged on if he can switch from representing pharmaceutical companies to representing the average American patient. Some have said it’s like having a fox watch the henhouse.

“Let the record show that when that specific question for Mr. Azar was asked and the bipartisan Senate Finance Committee was present, did he ever lower the price of a Lilly drug sold in the United States, Mr. Azar said no,” said Sen. Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.

In response, Azar said he was focused on his new role as secretary of the HHS.

“I don’t know that there is any drug price of a branded product that has ever gone down from any company on any drug in the United States because every incentive in the states is for higher prices,” he said, “and that is where we can do this together working as the government working to get at this. No one company is going to fix this system, that’s why I want to be here working with you.”

If confirmed, Mr. Azar would lead the department handling Medicaid and Medicare, along with the Affordable Care Act, which President Trump has vowed to dismantle.