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  • Washington Highlights

    HHS Secretary Nominee Highlights Top Priorities During Senate Hearing

    Jason Kleinman, Senior Legislative Analyst, Govt. Relations

    Alex Azar, President Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary, outlined his top priorities for the department during a Jan. 9 hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee.

    As he did during a Nov. 29, 2017, hearing with the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Azar used his opening statement to address what his top priorities would be if confirmed [see Washington Highlights, Dec. 1, 2017). Those include:

    • Address high drug prices;
    • Make health care more affordable, more available, and more tailored to what individuals want and need in their care;
    • Harness the power of Medicare to shift the focus in our health care system from paying for procedures and sickness to paying for health and outcomes; and
    • Tackle the scourge of the opioid epidemic.

    Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) praised Azar for his previous experience at HHS and responded to criticism that Azar has received for his most recent role as a top executive at Eli Lilly & Company. Hatch stated, “Experience in the private sector and dealing with the policies and regulations that come from government agencies is, in my view, a mark in favor of a nominee’s qualifications. Mr Azar’s work in the pharmaceutical industry will give him important insights regarding the impact of policies designed and implemented by HHS. And, when you add that knowledge and background to the years he spent as a senior official at HHS, you have an exemplary resume for an HHS Secretary.”

    Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) referred to Azar as “a drug company executive with a documented history of raising prescription drug prices” during his opening statement and highlighted several examples of drug prices that drastically increased while Azar worked at Eli Lilly. Wyden also expressed concern about the future of the Medicaid program and noted that “endangering the health care of low-income Americans is the absolute wrong way to go.”

    During the hearing, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) asked Azar what he would do in response to the AAMC’s projected shortage of 100,000 physicians by 2020. Azar referred to the doctor shortage as a “vexing problem” and noted current HHS programs to address the issue, including graduate medical education, reimbursement programs, and health professions programs. Heller highlighted the Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2017 (S. 1301), which he introduced with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). The bill would alleviate the impending doctor shortage by providing 15,000 federally supported residency positions over a five year period [see Washington Highlights, June 9, 2017].

    The Senate Finance Committee is expected to vote on Azar’s confirmation by the end of the month.