Former HHS secretaries: Alex Azar a perfect pick to lead Health agency

Former HHS secretaries: Alex Azar a perfect pick to lead Health agency
© Camille Fine

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is one of the most important and influential positions in the federal government. With a budget of more than $1.1  trillion and nearly 80,000 employees spread out over the entire country and throughout the globe, the Secretary manages the largest federal budget (larger than the Department of Defense), one of its biggest work forces and some of the government’s most important safety net programs. To do this job you need to be prepared.

HHS strives to “enhance and protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans” through the vast efforts of 11 operating divisions that collectively impact every American.

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Indian Health Services, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration provide services care for those most in need. The National Institutes of Health and the Health Resources Service Administration support critical medical and care delivery advances. The Food and Drug Administration ensures that we have safe and effective medications and treatments; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Office of Public Health Preparedness protect health through prevention efforts.

 

If that wasn’t enough HHS oversees the medical privacy laws and federal health IT activities. And now, with the burgeoning opioid addiction epidemic, it will play a major role in helping to address this national problem.

Fortunately, the president has nominated someone who is well prepared — Alex Azar — to lead HHS. He has the necessary experience, skills, motivation and integrity. During both of our tenures as HHS Secretary, we had the good fortune to have Azar serve in senior positions during challenging times. We strongly support his nomination to be the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

When Azar arrived at HHS in 2001 he was not the health care expert he is now. He was, however, an excellent attorney who was incredibly hard working, highly ethical, and driven by a desire to serve the public. Those attributes quickly transformed Azar into a health policy expert who as General Counsel and Deputy Secretary was invaluable to HHS and the American people. In his own words Azar wrote about his experience at HHS, “Within 30 days of being at HHS.…I realized I had found my life's calling: to help people around the world live longer, healthier, and happier lives.”

When terrorists attacked our nation on 9/11, HHS had already begun to organize the department for a public health emergency, but the re-organization was not yet complete. With Alex’s leadership as the General Counsel we quickly swung into action, not only responding to the immediate needs by deploying the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), but we created a public health emergency preparedness office within HHS to coordinate our efforts to respond and be ready for the next time a man-made or natural public health emergency occurred. Eventually, based on the work of Alex and his team, Congress passed authorizing legislation to make sure HHS was fully enabled to respond in the future.

One month after 9/11, the country was hit with an anthrax attack. As part of our response, Alex played a critical role in the negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to secure antibiotics for treatment at a price HHS could afford. Furthermore, in his early years as General Counsel, Alex recognized an unfairness in the patent system relating to pharmaceuticals that hurt consumers, and he proposed and implemented a policy that the Office of Management and Budget estimated would save consumers $36 billion.

Alex also played an important role in the debate, passage and implementation of the Medicare Modernization Act. As General Counsel, he was instrumental in helping HHS and senior staff understand the law as proposed and ultimately adopted, what it meant legally for HHS, what were the legal parameters for implementation and then was part of the team that successfully brought the program to life to the point now, where Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D are two of the most successful and well liked federal programs.

Azar then used the unique experience he gained at HHS and became a successful executive working for a major American company — Eli Lilly. Over 10 years he rose through the ranks to eventually become the President of Eli Lilly, USA, the company’s largest affiliate. While to some this experience presents a conflict, we think this gives him on the knowledge in the drug pricing debate that few others have, and he will use that to the advantage of the American people.

But being a successful HHS Secretary is about more than accomplishments and contributions. One of the most important parts about the job is the least high-profile part and one that gets little attention — management. How do you get nearly 80,000 employees to help you achieve your agenda? Make no mistake, achieving this is key to success and Azar knows how and has the track record from his previous time at HHS to be a successful manager. He knows you have to embrace the career staff, include them in the policy making process and ask for their thoughts on key questions. After all, who knows more about HHS than employees who’ve been there for years.

With Alex Azar at the helm, HHS will be in good hands.

Michael O. Leavitt (2005-2009) and Tommy G. Thompson (2001-2005) served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.