Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Alex Azar spoke in front of the Congressional Committee for the first time on Wednesday.
Alex Azar, JD
In a hearing with the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee discussing his nomination to become the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar testified about his connection to the rise of prescription drug prices, as well as his priorities if approved.
Facing the hearing following the resignation of former-Secretary Tom Price and amid a swell of criticism about his nomination, the former head of Lilly USA stated that he believed there were “constructive” steps that could be taken to drop drug prices.
When asked by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) about his time with Eli Lilly having an impact on his ability to serve, Azar said: “This is the most important job I will ever have in my lifetime, and my commitment is to the American people and not any industry I have worked for.”
Specifically, Azar stated that he is in favor of fostering competition for brand-name drugs and generics to drop drug prices, something that he was involved in when he was the HHS general counsel during George W. Bush’s presidency.
“Drug prices are too high. The president has made this clear, so have I,” Azar said. “With my extensive knowledge of the how insurance manufacturers, pharmacy, and government programs work together, I believe I can bring the skills and experiences to the table that can help us address these issues while still encouraging discovery so Americans have access to high-quality care.”
When asked by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) how he would approach the issue of drug prices if approved as HHS secretary, Azar noted that in addition to hearing ideas from the committee as well as those at the HHS, he wanted to attack the way drug companies game the patent system, something he said he’s “always been an opponent of.”
“We have to fight gaming the system of patients and exclusivity by drug companies,” Azar said. “Why are Americans paying more than those in Europe an Japan, and is that fair that we are bearing the cost of other nations?”
Referring to the tactic of making slight formulaic changes to therapies in order to extend the patent exclusivity of a drug, Azar said that abuses “clearly” exist within in the system and that there should be a moment of full competition for drugs after exclusivity ends.
A line of extensive questions came from Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) about the inability of Americans to use drugs that are commercially available in Europe, Canada, Mexico, or elsewhere. Paul called the fact that the belief that drugs approved in the European Union by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) are considered unsafe is “BS.”
Azar responded in agreement, declaring that the root of the problem is back with the way pharmaceutical companies game the patent system.
“That is one of the important avenues we ought to be pursuing,” Azar said. “Because, again, there should be a time when competition begins with generics and you shouldn’t be able to simply make a change and evergreen your patent.”
Azar noted that he had 3 other “critical areas” that he wished to focus on in addition to drug prices - affordable health care, harnessing the power of Medicare, and tackling the opioid epidemic.
When it came to the discussion about affordable health care and harnessing medicare, the HHS nominee pointed to the importance of individualizing needs to each patient and leveraging the best of the available programs. Azar stated that he believed health care need to be “more affordable, more available, and more tailored to what individuals want and need in their care.”
“We must harness the power of Medicare to shift the focus of our health care system from paying for procedures and sickness to paying for health and outcomes,” he said.
As far as combating the opioid epidemic, something the president and US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb have also expressed concern over, Azar started that he planned to attack the issue head-on, and aggressively.
“We must heed President Trump’s call to action and tackle the opioid epidemic destroying so many individuals, families, and communities,” he said. “We need aggressive prevention, education, regulatory and enforcement efforts to stop overuse of these legal and illegal drugs.”