WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump's pick to be the nation's next health secretary told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that "drug prices are too high" but said he's wary of the federal government having a broad role in negotiating prescription drug prices.
Alex Azar, former president of Eli Lilly, is Trump's pick to replace Tom Price, who resigned last year amid an ethics scandal related to his use of taxpayer dollars for personal travel.
While his confirmation is considered close to a foregone conclusion, he nevertheless came under intense questioning from Democrats who expressed concern about the direction he will take if he is confirmed.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., set a skeptical and rancorous tone early.
“Donald Trump said a year ago that he was against price hiking drug companies, but now the administration has nominated a drug company executive with a history of raising prescription drug prices,” Wyden said.
According to the senator, the cost of bone growth, heart disease and diabetes drugs all more than doubled under Azar's watch.
In addition, Wyden said, the attention deficit disorder drug Strattera jumped from $203 per dose to $429 per dose after Azar became the pharmaceutical giant's president.
“They’re too high," Azar said of drug prices. "I said that while [there].”
“I don’t know if there is any drug price of a branded product that has ever gone down in any company anywhere in the U.S.," he continued. "But that is where we can do things together … No one company will do that. That why I’m here with you."
At the same time, however, Azar said allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices across the board risks restricting choice for patients, since the government would have to establish a national formulary, or approved list of discounted medications.
Azar, a one-time clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, also served as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health under President George W. Bush.
He supervised department operations during the 2001 anthrax attacks in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and was ultimately made deputy secretary of the department, where he oversaw a $1 trillion budget.
But it was Azar's view on Medicare and its ability to negotiate prescription drug prices that most interested the Democrats.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, noted that Azar's statements on the issue appeared to directly contradict public statements made by the president.
Stabenow pressed: would Azar prefer Part D Medicare prescription drug programs negotiate with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry directly, a tactic currently barred by law?
“For the government to negotiate, we would have to have a single national formulary. I don’t believe we want to go there,” Azar said.
Linda Benesch, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Social Security Works, said she had no reason to believe Azar would fulfill promises to lower drug costs or protect those on Medicare if confirmed.
“Given his long record of working to increase big pharma's profits at the American people's expense, he can't be trusted to protect these vital benefits," Benesch said. "During his previous hearing in the [Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee] he expressed support for block-granting Medicaid, which would massively defund the program."
She also said she was concerned that refused to rule out raising the Medicare eligibility age -- an issue raised by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Republicans on the committee mostly praised Azar for what they described as his ability to successfully move between the worlds of business and the federal bureaucracy.
Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of the Health Department during the Obama administration, was among those who gave Azar a vote of confidence Tuesday.
“Alex has an excellent understanding of the health care system from both the government and the industry side," Troy told Courthouse News. "These perspectives will serve him well in his efforts to address the problem of pharmaceutical costs, which is one of his top priorities.”
Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, emphasized the six years Azar spent working at the “highest levels of Health and Human Services,” and dismissed suggestions by Democrats that his time in the private sector would negatively influence him.
Hatch gently pressed Azar to throw support behind his bill, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which requires the health department to submit a report to Congress identifying prescription drug cost obstacles to those addicted to opioids.
“The report is long overdue, and so, today, I’d like to impress upon [you] the importance of getting this report to Congress so that we can have an opportunity to review and make any necessary changes to the law that may help turn the tide of this epidemic," Hatch said. "I hope to get his commitment to produce and releasing this report as soon as possible, once confirmed.”
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