secretary nominee Azar says lowering drug prices a top priority
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[November 30, 2017] By
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alex Azar, a former
drug industry executive and lobbyist nominated to run the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, promised on Wednesday to lower
drug prices and said he was unaware of any efforts to sabotage the
healthcare law passed under former President Barack Obama.
Azar, appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health,
Education, Labor & Pensions as part of his confirmation process,
also said he would scrutinize potential abuse of patent laws that
delays generic competition.
Azar worked for years at Eli Lilly & Co before being chosen by
President Donald Trump to be health secretary. Critics question how
seriously Azar would tackle drug costs after presiding over sharp
increases in insulin and other diabetes drug prices while at Eli
If confirmed, Azar also would be responsible for implementing
Republican efforts to dismantle Obama's healthcare law, known as
Obamacare. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was one of Trump's most
frequently repeated campaign promises in 2016 but so far Congress
has failed to do so.
Trump has urged lawmakers to resume the effort early next year and
has taken steps to undermine the law in the meantime.
Azar told the committee he did not believe there were any efforts to
dismantle Obamacare and indicated he did not support the individual
mandate, the requirement that most Americans purchase health
insurance or else pay a fine.
He also said he supported a bipartisan Senate bill to help stabilize
insurance markets in the short-term.
Democratic and Republican members of the committee repeatedly
pressed Azar on how he would rein in drug costs.
"The current system of pricing insulin and other medicines ... is
not working for the patients who have to pay out of pocket and we
have to recognize that impact," Azar said.
In a more impassioned response later in the hearing, Azar vowed he
would not be beholden to any company or industry he had worked for.
Serving as health secretary, he said, would be the most important
job of his life.
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Azar declined to answer when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren
asked him whether drug company chief executives should be held
personally accountable for actions such as price fixing.
Two Democratic lawmakers last year called for a federal
investigation into whether Eli Lilly, Sanofi SA, Merck & Co and Novo
Nordisk A/S colluded to set diabetes drug prices. Azar was head of
Eli Lilly's U.S. business at the time.
Democratic senators asked Azar whether he would oppose efforts by
Trump to sabotage the program. On Wednesday, the Trump
administration said the number of people signing up for Obamacare
health coverage in 2018 had slowed significantly during the fourth
week of enrollment.
Azar said his other top priorities as health secretary would be
increasing access to affordable healthcare, facilitating Medicare
innovation and tackling the opioid crisis that has killed tens of
thousands of Americans.
If confirmed, Azar would replace Trump's first health secretary,
former U.S. Representative Tom Price, who resigned in September amid
a public furor over his use of expensive taxpayer-funded private
charter jets for government travel.
(Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Caroline Humer; Editing by
Michele Gershberg and Bill Trott)
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