President Donald Trump has tapped Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical industry executive and official in the George W. Bush administration, to be the next health and human services secretary, the president announced in a tweet on Monday.
Azar, 50, was the president of Lilly USA, the biggest affiliate of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., before stepping down in January.
"He will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!" the president said of Azar Monday.
Azar, if confirmed, would replace Tom Price, who resigned in September following public outcry over his use of private jets to conduct government business, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As a veteran of the department he hopes to lead, Azar would oversee the regulation of the industry he helped to lead for a decade and be the key point person in the administration's effort to overhaul Obamacare as well as the president's crusade to crack down on drug and insurance companies.
Azar once credited his time with HHS — serving first as the department's general counsel from 2001 to 2005, then deputy secretary until joining Eli Lilly in 2007 — as helping him discover his passion.
"I realized I had found my life's calling: to help people around the world live longer, healthier, and happier lives," he told Yale Law School, his alma mater, in an un-dated profile.
For the first two years at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly, Azar was a senior vice president in charge of the company's global communications and government affairs, before becoming president of Lilly USA in 2012. After leaving Eli Lilly, he started a pharmaceutical consulting firm called Seraphim Strategies.
Azar has been a harsh critic of Obamacare, saying it was "circling the drain" in an appearance on Fox Business this past May.
"Obamacare plans are following the laws of economics," he said on the network. "If you're running an insurance company, you have to be able to make money. To make money, you have to be able to predict risk. The Obamacare system has made it impossible to predict risk."
Azar has also advocated turning Medicaid into a block grant program for the states as well as overhauling Obamacare's Medicaid expansion component by letting the private sector run it.
"I'm not one to say many good things about Obamacare, but one of the nice things in it is it does give a tremendous amount of authority to the secretary of HHS," Azar told Bloomberg TV in June. "There are still changes that can be made to make it work a little better than it has been."
Azar, who supported Jeb Bush during the 2016 presidential campaign, donated $2,700 to the Trump Victory Fund, which coordinates with the Republican National Committee and state parties, after Trump became the nominee in 2016.
If confirmed, the former pharmaceutical executive could also be tasked with cracking down on the drug industry, which Trump has repeatedly promised to take on over rising costs.
"The drug companies, frankly, are getting away with murder," Trump said in a Cabinet meeting this year.
Azar has blamed insurers for high prices, telling an audience at an industry conference in May, "When the patient is going into the pharmacy, they're getting the sticker, they're getting the list price."
"We have a problem," he added. "Patients are paying too much for drugs."
Ben Wakana, the executive director of the advocacy group Patients For Affordable Drugs, said in a statement the group is concerned that Trump selected a drug industry insider to lead the department.
"To have a former drug company executive nominated as HHS Secretary adds to our concern that this administration may continue to disappoint through its lack of action on skyrocketing drug prices," Wakana said. "But actions speak louder than words. Mr. Azar is well-qualified and has the chance to stand up for patients because he knows exactly how our drug pricing system is broken. If he wants to take meaningful action to lower drug prices, we want to help him."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., praised Trump's pick, calling Azar "an experienced and highly capable leader who knows what it takes to tackle big challenges in health care," in a tweet on Monday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Azar's confirmation would be a referendum on Obamacare and "the Trump administration's repeated efforts to sabotage our health care system and raise premiums on millions of Americans."
"It's time to turn over a new leaf at HHS," Schumer said in a statement. "The next Secretary must demonstrate a commitment to lowering premiums, and not sabotaging the Affordable Care Act and our health care system with reckless actions that hurt families."