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Drug Prices in Spotlight During Confirmation Hearing for HHS Secretary Nominee

November 29, 2017

Drug prices and the affordability of health care were key topics in the first confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, the nominee to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Mr. Azar was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Dr. Tom Price. A native of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Mr. Azar’s background includes having served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, HHS General Counsel and Deputy Secretary under President George W. Bush, and president of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly and Company.

Throughout the hearing, Senators pressed Mr. Azar regarding his connection to the pharmaceutical industry. Mr. Azar cited his private sector experience and his role in implementing the Medicare Part D prescription drug program as a benefit in understanding how to address the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs.

Mr. Azar indicated through his testimony before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that he will place a priority on four key areas:

  • Addressing drug prices
  • Making health care more affordable
  • Harnessing Medicare to shift the health care system to pay for health and outcomes
  • Tackling the opioid epidemic

HELP Committee Chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), outlined the broad responsibilities and priorities of the HHS Secretary including: 

  • Overseeing the Medicare and Medicaid programs
  • Implementing the 21st Century Cures Act, including major reforms to mental health programs and funding to confront the opioid epidemic
  • Addressing premium costs in the individual insurance market
  • Advancing medical research through the National Institutes of Health
  • Spurring medical innovation through the Food and Drug Administration

During the hearing, Chairman Alexander reinforced the importance of passing the Alexander-Murray Bipartisan Health Care Stabilization Act of 2017 in order to help stem significant premium increases in the individual market. The stabilization legislation would fund cost-sharing reduction payments established under the Affordable Care Act for two years. 

The hearing also featured discussion about public health preparedness. The HELP Committee will be working on the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act next year. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) was a chief sponsor of preparedness legislation during 2013, and will have a significant role in the reauthorization next year. Mr. Azar noted that he served at HHS during the anthrax attacks following 9/11 and played a role in pandemic flu preparedness work and the response to SARS and monkeypox. 

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee will also hold a confirmation hearing and is charged with advancing Mr. Azar’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration.

Questions pertaining to federal policy may be directed to Laura Stevens Kent, HAP’s vice president, federal legislative advocacy. 

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