November 8, 2017 / 7:13 PM / in a month

Ex-pharma exec Azar is top choice to run U.S. health agency: sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical company executive, is U.S. President Donald Trump’s top pick to run the Department of Health and Human Services, two sources with knowledge of the confidential process said on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.

Azar served at Eli Lilly for a decade, including five years as president of its U.S. Lilly USA, LLC unit.

The White House declined to comment.

Tom Price resigned as HHS secretary in September after about seven months in the post, after facing sharp criticism for his use of taxpayer-funded private travel.

Before his stint at Eli Lilly, Azar served as general counsel and deputy secretary for HHS under President George W. Bush.

The new HHS secretary will be tasked with implementing Trump administration efforts to unwind Obamacare, a top campaign promise of his, and overseeing the drug industry, which Trump has said is “getting away with murder” by charging high prices for prescription medications.

Azar has served on the board of directors of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug industry lobby, for several years, and his nomination would raise questions about the administration’s seriousness about lowering drug prices.

Other names that have been floated to replace Price include Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Scott Gottlieb, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House but have repeatedly failed to repeal and replace Obama’s Affordable Care Act, prompting Trump to take steps on his own to dismantle the program.

The Trump administration followed through on a threat to cut off billions of dollars of subsidy payments to insurers, shortened the Obamacare open enrollment period, slashed advertising for the program by 90 percent and cut funding to groups that help people sign up for health insurance.

In October Trump also signed an executive order that would weaken Obamacare by making it easier for Americans to buy bare-bones health insurance plans.

The administration is already planning changes for 2019. Last month, it proposed a rule giving states more flexibility over the benefits that must be covered by insurance. Under Obamacare, all insurers have to cover a set of 10 benefits, such as maternity and newborn care and prescription drugs.

Reporting By Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Richard Chang

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