U.S. Senate committee advances Azar nomination as health secretary

Alex Azar II testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary in Washington, U.S., January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday voted to move forward the nomination of Alex Azar, a former drug industry executive and lobbyist whom President Donald Trump has tapped to be the next secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 15-12 to advance Azar’s nomination, with all but one Democrat opposing. To receive final confirmation Azar will have to receive a majority vote in the 100-seat Senate, which Republicans control with 51 seats.

Among other issues, Azar would be charged with overseeing the Trump administration’s response to the opioid epidemic, and its efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, commonly called Obamacare.

Azar spent about a decade at U.S. pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly & Co, including five years as president of its U.S. unit. He left the company in 2017.

During a Senate hearing last week, Democrats questioned how seriously he would work to make prescription drugs more affordable - an issue that Trump has repeatedly promised to address - and pointed to a handful of Lilly drugs whose prices more than doubled under Azar’s watch.

“Mr Azar could not provide a single example of when his company lowered prices,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the top ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “I have no confidence that he will take a different approach to these key health care policies than his predecessor took.”

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

Republicans said Azar, who also served as general counsel and deputy secretary for Health and Human Services under former Republican President George W. Bush, had the right experience to run the agency.

“By any objective account, Mr Azar is very well qualified for this important position,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, the top-ranking Republican on the committee.