Democrats plan to use President Trump’s pick for a top health post to press the president to follow through on his campaign promise to fight for lower drug prices.
Trump on Monday picked Alex Azar to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, drawing immediate scrutiny from Democrats who pointed out his tenure at the helm of drug maker Eli Lilly’s U.S. division. During his campaign, Trump had said that pharmaceutical companies were "getting away with murder" as he criticized high drug prices.
“#POTUS picking former drug exec to lead HHS is like a fox guarding the hen house,” tweeted Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “This is a slap in the face to millions of Americans who are waiting on POTUS to take action to lower drug prices.”
#POTUS picking former drug exec to lead HHS is like a fox guarding the hen house. This is a slap in the face to millions of Americans who are waiting on POTUS to take action to lower drug prices.— Elijah E. Cummings (@RepCummings) November 13, 2017
Cummings also tweeted that he and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote to federal agencies to clamp down on Eli Lilly for raising insulin prices, which several state attorneys general are investigating.
Last year @SenSanders and I sent letters to @DOJ and @FTC about #EliLilly insulin prices – now state AGs are investigating. https://t.co/RHL5FyOD9R— Elijah E. Cummings (@RepCummings) November 13, 2017
Cummings and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., met with Trump in March to discuss whether the president would embrace their bill to give Medicare the power to negotiate for lower drug prices. But the two lawmakers have been dismayed that Trump and HHS have ignored their requests to work on the bill, which was released a few weeks ago.
Cummings told the Washington Examiner Monday that he would like to meet with Azar, who served in HHS under President George W. Bush, and he hasn’t given up on working with Trump on combating high drug prices.
Azar is replacing former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who resigned a few months ago because of travel on charter jets for government business.
In the Senate where Azar’s fate will be decided, Democrats are already primed to make high drug prices a key topic during his confirmation hearings.
“It ups the ante in terms of showing how he will be independent, how he would be specific in controlling costs,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee that will consider Azar’s nomination.
Wyden said it would be important for Azar to demonstrate that his loyalties lie with the American people and not “those you were employed by.”
Other Democrats were skeptical about Azar’s commitment to fight high drug prices.
“Traditionally those guys have opposed negotiated pricing for pharmaceuticals under Medicare Part D where President Trump said he supports it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Kaine sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which also will hold a hearing on Azar’s nomination.
But without at least several Republicans joining them, Democrats cannot derail Azar's nomination.
Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence can break any 50-50 tie. Executive branch nominations require only a majority vote instead of the 60 needed to stop a filibuster.
All of Trump’s nominees who have come up for a vote have passed.
Centrist Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, didn’t say she was opposed to Azar and that she is looking into the nominee.
Democrats are hoping to at least press Azar on drug prices and on how he would run Obamacare. A key criticism of Price was that he tried to “sabotage” Obamacare, making the stewardship of the law a key topic.