Trump proposal for HHS boss fails to impress

United States president Donald Trump’s nomination of a former drug industry executive as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to convince senators that he would represent the best interests of American people.

Alex Azar, formerly a senior executive at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, was questioned by the Senate on 29 November, concerning his eligibility for the role.
Azar said he would tackle rising drug prices, but some Representatives are sceptical about where his loyalties lie. During his decade at Lilly, Azar oversaw an increase in the price of insulin and other drugs sold by the company.

Trump said Azar would be “a star for better health care and lower drug prices!” in a Tweet last week. But during the hearing, Republican senator Rand Paul, who is also a physician, said that he’d need more convincing Azar would be “representing the American people and not big pharma.”

“Under the current system big pharma uses its economic clout to manipulate the patent system [and] to increase drug prices,” said Paul.

The Kentucky senator said that although drugs such as insulin had existed for decades, a generic option was still not available in the US, keeping different brands expensive in a concentrated market.

Paul also questioned Azar’s position against drug importation. The FDA does not allow individuals to import drugs from outside the US, including the European Union, Canada or Australia except in exceptional circumstances. Paul said the reality was that US pharmaceutical companies wanted to limit the options of consumers and keep prices high.

“What I want you to tell me is why the drugs are not safe in the European Union and how you would make them safe?” said Paul.

Following the recent proposal by the Trump administration to allow employers to refuse contraceptive health coverage on moral and religious grounds, Azar was also questioned on women’s health issues by Democrat senator Patty Murray.

When asked whether he supported the right for women to have the medication prescribed by their doctors on their insurance regardless of the opinions of their employers. Azar said that there “should be a balance” between what an “employer’s conscience and a woman’s conscience is”.

If confirmed for the position, Azar would succeed Tom Price, who resigned in September after it was revealed that he spent $1 million flying on private jets.

The HHS oversees agencies including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This story originally appeared in Research Europe on 30/11/17 

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