Alex Azar, the president’s nominee to head the Dept. of Health & Human Services, has nearly a decade of experience in the pharmaceutical industry – and that experience is either predictive of his inability to act on lowering drug prices or will serve him well as HHS chief, depending on who you ask.
At Azar’s Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans argued that his time at insulin-maker Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY) gives him insight into how HHS policies ultimately affect industry. Democrats pushed back, probing Azar about the drug-price increases that took place at Eli Lilly while he was working there.
Azar, who served most recently as president of Eli Lilly’s U.S business, has repeatedly said that drug prices are too high. In earlier hearings, the nominee stuck largely to traditionally conservative talking points when asked about how he would bring drug prices down: encourage industry members to develop more generics and stop companies from taking advantage of the patent system.
But at yesterday’s hearing, he mentioned that he is interested in solving the issue of list prices, as well.
“The most important thing we have to figure out is, can we reverse the incentive on list prices? There’s a lot that we all know we can do on the net, the discounted prices. But I want to work with this committee and anyone who is smart and thoughtful about it. Can we create incentives that actually pull down those list prices so that when the patient walks in needing to pay out of pocket at the pharmacy, that they’re not hit with those kind of costs. That’s one of the harder issues to solve,” he said, according to STAT.
Azar previously worked at HHS, serving as general counsel from 2001 to 2005 under president George W. Bush. He also worked as the department’s deputy secretary for two years.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) pushed back against Azar’s nomination, pointing towards drugs that Wyden said more than doubled in cost while Azar was at Eli Lilly.
“This morning the committee will likely hear that this is just the way things work – it’s the system that’s to be blamed. My view is, there’s a lot of validity in that. The system is broken. Mr. Azar was part of that system,” he said, according to The Hill.
Wyden went a step further during the hearing, asking Azar if he ever lowered the price of a drug made by Lilly and sold in the U.S.
“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 this system is toward higher prices,” Azar reportedly explained. “And that is where we can do things together working as the government to get at this. No one company is going to fix that system, that’s why I want to be here working with you.”
Azar is expected to be confirmed by the Senate Finance Committee, which will then send the confirmation to the Senate for a vote.