The Senate Finance Committee advancement of Azar to HHS is a public health crisis

Nurses are responsible for the safety and well-being of the patients in our care. If we know something might harm our patients, we speak up to keep them safe. So nurses across the country are speaking up about a threat to the safety and well-being of our patients and our communities: Trump’s nomination of former Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar for secretary of Health and Human Services.

We didn’t think Trump could do worse than Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceRepublicans succeeded at raising insurance premiums for too many Dems expand 2018 message to ‘draining the swamp’ Dems to target GOP corruption in midterms: report MORE, who planned to eliminate the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, and the entire Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Nurses were relieved when Price, who spent millions of taxpayer dollars to fly on a private jet – including from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, a trip that would have been quicker on Amtrak – resigned from his post. We hoped some of the risk to our patients and communities would be averted.

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Now a greater risk looms in the form of Azar. American communities continue to suffer through the opioid and prescription-drug crisis claiming our loved ones. Families are battered economically by price-gouging by Big Pharma and insurance companies. Rather than a prescription to cure these ills, Azar is part of the problem.

Azar’s tenure at Eli Lilly saw a criminal investigation for the company’s illegal promotion of anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa – resulting in a $1.4 billion settlement that barely made a dent in company profits, at the expense of vulnerable older Americans who had been wrongly prescribed $30 billion worth of the drug for dementia. What is worse, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Eli Lilly knew from internal research for many years that Zyprexa was useless and possibly harmful for patients with dementia.

Azar then took aim at the 30 million Americans who have diabetes, more than tripling the price of insulin to $9,000. During his time as HHS general counsel and deputy director, Azar had helped craft legislation that prevents Medicaid from negotiating better drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. His multi-billion dollar company now benefitted from the profits-over-patients policy, leaving tens of millions of Americans with no choice but to pay higher prices for the medications they need to stay alive.

Nurses are trained to understand what might cause threats to our patients’ safety. Azar’s history suggests he will not make health care better, but will cause unneeded pain to our communities. And those who suffer will likely not be stockholders of Eli Lilly, but average, hardworking Americans. In the hospitals where we work, the effects of corporate prescription drug abuse and price-gouging are seen in the increasing numbers of homeless patients and other impoverished residents who are among the most vulnerable.

As health care professionals, we can confidently tell you when it comes to the advancement of Alex Azar for secretary of Health and Human Services, the risks are many and the benefits are none. But Azar is a public health disaster that can easily be averted. Our prescription is relatively simple: stop playing politics with health care. Only 51 U.S. senators are needed to prevent needless harm to millions of Americans.

Sasha Cuttler, RN, PhD, San Francisco, Calif., Patricia Greenberg RN, BSN, MA, Syracuse, N.Y. and Rita Lewis, RN, BSN, Emeryville, Calif. are delegates to the Nurse Alliance of the Service Employees International Union.