Health and Science

Trump's top health nominee Alex Azar says at Senate confirmation hearing that 'drug prices are too high'

Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee for U.S. President Donald Trump, listens during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee nomination hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017.
Eric Thayer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's pick to head the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, Alex Azar, said "drug prices are too high" at a Senate confirmation hearing as he ducked a direct question on whether he ever had approved a price decrease while he was a top pharmaceuticals company executive.

Azar came under strong questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who noted that Azar had repeatedly approved price hikes while president of the U.S. subsidiary of drug giant Eli Lilly, and serving on the company's pricing committee.

Wyden noted that Lilly's drug Forteo, which is used to treat bone loss, saw a 164 percent price hike during Azar's tenure. Azar was president from 2012 to 2017.

"When you ran [the pricing committee] higher prices drove revenue for drug, after drug, after drug, even after demand for the products fell," Wyden said during the Senate Finance Committee hearing.

"As chairman of the drug pricing committee, did you ever lower the price — ever — of a Lilly drug sold in the United States?" Wyden asked.

Azar did not answer that question.

"Drug prices are too high," Azar said.

Wyden interjected, "Mr. Azar, that is not the question."

Azar then said, "I don't know there is any price of a branded drug product that has gone down."

"We can do things together," Azar told Wyden. "No one company's going to fix this system."

Wyden then said the record of the committee hearing should reflect that Azar confirmed he had never lowered the price of a drug while at Lilly.

Wyden had opened the hearing by noting the irony of Trump, who has said drug companies have gotten away with "murder" in raising pharmaceticul prices, nominating a pharma executive with "a documented history of raising prescription drug price

Azar later told Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., that "all drug prices are too high in this country."

He told Stabenow that he would be willing to explore the question of whether Medicare Part B should have the power to negotiate drug prices, as currently does Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit program. Medicare Part B covers drug treatment administered in physicians' offices and outpatient settings.

Azar previously was general counsel and deputy secretary of HHS during the administration of President George W. Bush.

If approved, the Yale Law grad would oversee a department responsible for operating the nation's huge Medicare and Medicaid health coverage systems, as well as the Obamacare program that is strongly opposed by the Trump administration.

HHS' bailiwick also includes regulating the pharmaceuticals industry that Azar recently left.

Azar, 50, was tapped by Trump to succeed Dr. Tom Price, who resigned as HHS' chief in September after scathing reports about Price's repeated use of pricey private charter flights at taxpayer expense instead of using less expensive means of travel.

In an op-ed published Tuesday by news site STAT, two former Senate majority leaders, Republican Bill Frist and Democrat Tom Daschle, wrote that Azar's nomination meets a "high bar" for what the job of secretary of HHS requires.

"We know Alex to have the temperament, judgment, and necessary focus on practicality that is important to being a successful HHS secretary, even if we do not agree with him on every issue," Frist and Daschle wrote. "He has pledged to follow the law and abide by its restraints. And just as essential, he has promised to listen to stakeholders and work with Democrats as well as Republicans."

But on Monday, the Obamacare advocacy group Protect Our Care launched a digital ad campaign urging senators to vote against Azar's nomination.

"Azar has agreed to head up the GOP's war on health care, which has included ... a never-ending quest to repeal health care despite the fact that doing so raises premiums by double digits and removes protections for millions of Americans," Protect Our Care said in a statement announcing the ad.