Health secretary nominee Azar says lowering drug prices a top priority

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alex Azar, a former drug industry executive and lobbyist nominated to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, promised on Wednesday to lower drug prices and said he was unaware of any efforts to sabotage the healthcare law passed under former President Barack Obama.

Slideshow ( 9 images )

Azar, appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions as part of his confirmation process, also said he would scrutinize potential abuse of patent laws that delays generic competition.

Azar worked for years at Eli Lilly & Co before being chosen by President Donald Trump to be health secretary. Critics question how seriously Azar would tackle drug costs after presiding over sharp increases in insulin and other diabetes drug prices while at Eli Lilly.

If confirmed, Azar also would be responsible for implementing Republican efforts to dismantle Obama’s healthcare law, known as Obamacare. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was one of Trump’s most frequently repeated campaign promises in 2016 but so far Congress has failed to do so.

Trump has urged lawmakers to resume the effort early next year and has taken steps to undermine the law in the meantime.

Azar told the committee he did not believe there were any efforts to dismantle Obamacare and indicated he did not support the individual mandate, the requirement that most Americans purchase health insurance or else pay a fine.

He also said he supported a bipartisan Senate bill to help stabilize insurance markets in the short-term.

Related Coverage

Democratic and Republican members of the committee repeatedly pressed Azar on how he would rein in drug costs.

“The current system of pricing insulin and other medicines ... is not working for the patients who have to pay out of pocket and we have to recognize that impact,” Azar said.

In a more impassioned response later in the hearing, Azar vowed he would not be beholden to any company or industry he had worked for. Serving as health secretary, he said, would be the most important job of his life.

Azar declined to answer when Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren asked him whether drug company chief executives should be held personally accountable for actions such as price fixing.

Two Democratic lawmakers last year called for a federal investigation into whether Eli Lilly, Sanofi SA, Merck & Co and Novo Nordisk A/S colluded to set diabetes drug prices. Azar was head of Eli Lilly’s U.S. business at the time.

Democratic senators asked Azar whether he would oppose efforts by Trump to sabotage the program. On Wednesday, the Trump administration said the number of people signing up for Obamacare health coverage in 2018 had slowed significantly during the fourth week of enrollment.

Azar said his other top priorities as health secretary would be increasing access to affordable healthcare, facilitating Medicare innovation and tackling the opioid crisis that has killed tens of thousands of Americans.

If confirmed, Azar would replace Trump’s first health secretary, former U.S. Representative Tom Price, who resigned in September amid a public furor over his use of expensive taxpayer-funded private charter jets for government travel.

Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Caroline Humer; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Trott