Trump taps ex-pharma executive Azar as U.S. health secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Monday said he is nominating former pharmaceutical executive and industry lobbyist Alex Azar to serve as U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, saying Azar would push to lower the price of medicines.

Alex Azar in an undated photo. REUTERS/HHS

Republicans as well as the lead lobby groups for drugmakers and health insurers welcomed Azar as an experienced hand who could help overhaul the world’s most costly healthcare system.

But several Democratic lawmakers questioned whether he would tackle changes that cut into pharmaceutical profits.

If confirmed, Azar also would take the lead in implementing Trump’s campaign promise to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare overhaul that extended health insurance to 20 million Americans.

Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings said Trump’s pick of a former pharmaceutical executive was “like a fox guarding the hen house.”

Trump, who is in the Philippines on a diplomatic trip, announced the nomination on Twitter by saying Azar would “be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices.”

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

Azar worked at Eli Lilly LLY.N and Co for a decade, including five years as president of its Lilly USA unit, and left the company in January, according to his LinkedIn page.

Cummings and Senator Bernie Sanders, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, last year called for a federal probe into whether Eli Lilly, Sanofi SA SASY.PA, Merck & Co Inc MRK.N and Novo Nordisk A/S NOVOb.CO colluded to set prices on insulin and other diabetes drugs.

“This is a slap in the face to millions of Americans who are waiting on (the President) to take action to lower drug prices,” Cummings wrote on Twitter. He also pointed to Eli Lilly raising drug prices by double digits while Azar was an executive at the company.

Azar, though a spokesman, declined to comment.

Other Democrats were more cautious in their response to Trump’s announcement, with Senator Chuck Schumer calling for the health agency to turn over a new leaf with Azar.

Democratic Senator Patty Murray, who has been working on bipartisan healthcare legislation, tweeted, “Given Alex Azar’s professional background, there are concerns on whether he can fairly execute any significant effort to lower drug prices for patients & families.”

Republicans were supportive with Senate health committee head Lamar Alexander of Tennessee describing Azar as a qualified, experienced nominee.

Azar also drew praise from PhRMA, the largest pharmaceutical industry trade group and America’s Health Insurance Plans, the key lobbyist for the insurer industry.

Azar served several years on the board of directors of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug industry lobbying group, and earlier was general counsel and deputy secretary for Health and Human Services under former Republican President George W. Bush.

Patient advocacy organization Public Citizen said Azar has made it clear he is opposed to measures “to restrain prescription companies’ profiteering and limit improper marketing” and that he favors weaker safety approval standards.

As head of HHS, Azar would have oversight responsibility for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the drug industry including approving new treatments.

Azar’s nomination must be approved by the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Reporting by Caroline Humer and Yasmeen Abutaleb; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Susan Cornwell; editing by Michele Gershberg and Tom Brown