- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2017

President Trump on Monday announced his pick of a former top Bush administration official and pharmaceutical executive to be the next secretary at Health and Human Services, in what will likely turn into another showdown over the administration’s handling of Obamacare.

Republicans said Alex Azar would be a skilled and steady hand at the sprawling agency after the last secretary resigned under the cloud of scandal. Democrats, who don’t have the votes to stop his confirmation, said they feared Mr. Azar would work to undermine Obamacare and reward pharmaceutical executives that, until recently, he counted as peers.

If confirmed, Mr. Azar would oversee a massive, $1 trillion agency that administers public insurance programs like Medicaid and Medicare, regulates and licenses drugs and combats public health threats, like influenza, the opioid epidemic and the Zika virus.

And he’d be tasked with turning the page after Tom Price, a former congressman, resigned as HHS secretary in September amid revelations he used expensive charter planes for business travel.

“Happy to announce, I am nominating Alex Azar to be the next HHS Secretary. He will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Mr. Azar, a 50-year-old who clerked for late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia decades ago, served as general counsel and deputy HHS secretary under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007.

He worked for Eli Lilly, a large drugmaker, for a decade after leaving HHS, rising to president of its U.S. division in Indianapolis before leaving January.

Senate Republicans pledged to confirm him quickly.

Sen. Todd Young of Indiana said Mr. Azar’s service in the public and private sectors will form “an effective combination as we work to solve our nation’s most significant healthcare challenges.”

Yet Democrats signaled they will hold his ties to Big Pharma against him, saying Mr. Trump has accused drug companies of “getting away with murder” but has done little to rein in prices.

“At a time when the United States pays, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, the last thing we need is to put a pharmaceutical executive in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat, was the most direct, tweeting that the selection of a former drug executive to lead HHS “is like a fox guarding the hen house.”

Eric D. Hargan is serving as interim HHS secretary after Mr. Trump nudged out Mr. Price over his travel.

Mr. Price was a leading cheerleader for efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare during his nine months in office, though congressional Republicans were unable to pass a bill.

Mr. Azar has openly criticized Obamacare, telling the Fox Business channel in May the law was “circling the drain” due to an unpredictable consumer base from year to year.

To become secretary, Senate Democrats said, he will have to promise to defend and promote the program.

“This confirmation process will be a referendum on the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to sabotage our health care system and raise premiums on millions of Americans,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. “It’s time to turn over a new leaf at HHS.”

Polls have shown that Americans are more concerned about the spiraling cost of drugs than other health care priorities, including the repeal of Obamacare.

Democrats have urged Mr. Trump to use government authority through Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, though so far the White House has emphasized market-based solutions, such as speeding approvals of cheaper generic drugs.

John Desser, a former HHS official who briefly crossed paths with Mr. Azar under Mr. Bush, said despite the nominee’s ties to drug companies, he is a “very sharp lawyer” who will be an effective advocate for Mr. Trump, should the president decide to take hard line on pricing.

“Who better to advance his client’s interest than someone who knows that industry inside and out?” said Mr. Desser, senior vice president for government affairs at eHealth, a website that connects users with insurance.

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