WASHINGTON (AP) - Turning to an industry heâ€™s rebuked, President Donald Trump on Monday picked a former top pharmaceutical and government executive to be his health and human services secretary, overseeing a $1 trillion department responsible for major health insurance programs, medical research, food and drug safety, and public health.
The nomination of Alex Azar is unusual because HHS secretaries have tended to come from the ranks of elected officials such as governors, leaders in academia and medicine, or top executive branch managers - not industries regulated by the department.
â€śHe will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!â€ť Trump tweeted in announcing the nomination Monday morning. Trump has a track record of making industry-friendly nominations, such as tapping former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and billionaire businessman Wilbur Ross as secretary of commerce.
But Trump also has been a scathing critic of the pharmaceutical industry, both as a candidate and as president.
Azar, 50, a lawyer by training, has spent most of the last 10 years with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, rising to president of its key U.S. affiliate before leaving in January to start his own consulting firm. Heâ€™s seen as an expert on government health care regulation.
As secretary, Azar would be returning to HHS after serving in senior department posts in the George W. Bush administration. Now heâ€™d have to scrupulously avoid conflicts with Lillyâ€™s far-reaching interests, from drug approval to Medicare reimbursement. The drugmaker has drawn criticism from patient advocacy groups for price increases to one of its biggest products: insulin.
Azarâ€™s nominations to HHS in the Bush era sailed through the Senate. This time, heâ€™ll face Democrats wary of the administrationâ€™s unyielding quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
â€śThe Trump administrationâ€™s track record on health care to date is objectively abysmal,â€ť said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, senior Democrat on the Finance Committee, which would send Azarâ€™s nomination to the full Senate. â€śI will closely scrutinize Mr. Azarâ€™s record.â€ť
Sen. Patty Patty Murray, D-Wash., flagged a potential conflict of interest. â€śI am ... interested in how, given Mr. Azarâ€™s professional background, he believes he can fairly execute any significant effort to lower drug prices for patients,â€ť she said in a statement. Murray is the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which will also hold hearings.