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Alex Azar Confirmed as New HHS Secretary

The Department of Health and Human Services has a new permanent leader. The Senate has confirmed Alex M. Azar II as the replacement for Tom Price, who resigned from the position in September over his use of private jets paid for out of government funds.

Azar has experience working in the HHS, having previously served as deputy secretary for two years during the George W. Bush administration. Azar was also president of Eli Lilly and Co., for 5 years and served as a senior executive for a further five. Azar is the first HHS Secretary to be appointed that has a background in the pharmaceutical industry, something many Democrats had a problem with, hence the close vote of 55-43 in favor of his appointment.

One of the main tasks Azar has been charged with, and what he says is his main priority, is to reduce the prices drug companies are charging for medications. President Trump has previously stated drug firms are “getting away with murder” by charging exorbitant prices and Azar is expected to oversee changes that will make prescription medications more affordable.

Azar has recently spoken out about the high prices being charged but blamed the price hikes on a system that encourages price increases, rather than blaming the pharmaceutical firms.

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During his time at Eli Lilly, prices of its drugs skyrocketed with some drugs – the osteoporosis drug Forteo for instance – doubling in price. The price of Insulin similarly soared.

While Democrats think Azar’s pharmaceutical background is a big negative, many Republicans believe his experience is an asset. It remains to be seen what will be done to correct that system, but there are fears that little will change with Azar at the helm. When previously asked how he plans to reduce prices, Azar said he favored encouraging the development of more generic drugs and tackling abuse of the patent system.

President Trump certainly has confidence in Azar, having tweeted “He will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” when Azar was nominated for the position in November.

Azar told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “I don’t have Pharma’s policy agenda,” and “This is the most important job I will have in a lifetime, and my commitment is to the American people.”

Those in favor of Obamacare are also not keen on Azar’s appointment. Azar was opposed to the Affordable Care Act and has previously called it “a fundamentally broken system.” Azar is now personally responsible for administrating it so he is in the perfect position to fix the problems. Whether he will manage to do so and stabilize the insurance markets remains to be seen, although many fear Azar’s appointment will see ACA further undermined.

Azar has made it clear his main priorities are curbing the high cost of prescription medications, making health insurance more affordable and more widely available, focusing Medicare payments on quality, and tackling the current opioid epidemic.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.