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President Donald Trump vowed Monday that his new health-care chief Alex Azar — a former top drug-company executive who raised prescription prices — is "going to get those prescription drug prices way down" as Azar was sworn in for his job.
"It's doing to come rocketing down," Trump said as Azar, 50, stood at his side in the White House before taking his oath as secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department from Vice President Mike Pence.
While Trump has often promised to bring down drug prices as president, Azar, as president of the U.S. division of pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly & Co., had often overseen repeated price increase of prescription medications. Critics of Trump have noted the irony of his choice of Azar given that history.
"We have to get the prices of prescription drugs way down, and unravel the tangled web of special interests that are driving prices up for medicine, and are really hurting patients," Trump said.
"You look at other countries they pay a fraction for the exact same drug the exact same pill in an identical box from the same factory costs us much more many times more than it does in other countries," the president said.
"And nobody knows that process better than Alex."
Trump separately mentioned drug prices three times in brief introductory remarks before Azar was sworn in.
"I will say this prescription drug prices is going to be one of the big things and whenever I speak to Alex I speak to him about that I think prior to anything else," Trump said, looking back at Azar for confirmation. "And I know you can do it. You know the system, you can do it because it's wrong."
Trump also said Azar's other top priorities will include "rolling back regulations that drug up health-care costs," and addressing the rampant epidemic of addiction to prescription painkillers and illegal opioids in the United States.
Brad Woodhouse, director of the Obamacare advocacy group the Protect Our Care Campaign, called Azar a "Big Pharma lobbyist" who will be Trump' "sabotage sidekick at HHS."
And Benjamin Wakana, executive director of the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs, said that that "If the administration is serious, should support the bipartisan CREATES Act and Medicare price negotiation right now."
The CREATES Act targets drug-company tactics that stall the entry of less-expensive generic versions of brand name drugs from the marketplace, and Medicare is currently barred from negotiating prices for drugs covered by that program.
"President Trump and Secretary Azar have a chance to help patients," said Wakana. "Talk is cheap. It's time to get to work, fellas."
Azar, 50, is replacing Trump's prior health-care chief, Dr. Tom Price, who resigned last fall amid controversy over his use of expensive private jet charters for official business.
The Yale Law grad is the first drug-business veteran to lead HHS, where he had worked during the administration of President George W. Bush as general counsel, and then as deputy secretary.
"In both those roles Alex was outstanding and an incredible public servant, " Trump said. "People talk about him to this day. He was instrumental in improving the department's operations and advancing its emergency response capabilities."
As head of HHS, will oversee an annual budget of more than $1 trillion, and the huge Medicare and Medicaid programs, which provide health coverage primarily to senior citizens and the poor, respectively.
He also will be in charge of divisions that regulate the pharmaceuticals industry, combat diseases, and oversee implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as Obamacare is commonly known.
The Trump administration opposes Obamacare, and has repeatedly tried to have much of it repealed. While those efforts have failed, the administration has taken a series of actions to undercut the law.
After taking the oath of office, Azar said, "Only in America," to his opportunity to lead HHS as the "the grandchild and great-grandchild of immigrants from Lebanon from Ukraine from England. Switzerland."
"Mr. President thank you so much for the confidence that you have bestowed upon me and the incredible department you have trusted me with. Mr. Vice President thank you. For your many years of friendship and administering the oath today and to my family to Jennifer and the rest of my family. Thank you for all of the many years of support and for the support."
"I'd also like to thank the 79,000 men and women of HHS who is now my great honor to lead. I know these people, " Azar said.
"I know this team and the deep commitment that they have to the mission of HHS to enhance and protect the well-being and health of all Americans. That is a solemn charge. It is a charge that I am committed to. And as you heard from the president today it is a charge that includes his personal direction to me that we have to tackle the scourge of the opiate crisis and bring down prescription drug prices. I look forward to that mission to work ahead. Now it's time to get to work."