HHS nominee: Prescription drug prices too high

HHS nominee: Prescription drug prices too high

President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said prescription drug prices “are too high” on Wednesday during his first public appearance before Congress since his nomination.

“Drug prices are too high. The president has made this clear. So have I," Alex Azar said in his opening remarks.

This sentiment echoes previous statements he has made at conferences.

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In particular, Azar said he would focus on increasing competition and fighting the gaming of the system of patents and exclusivity by drug companies. He said his experience in both the public and private sector helps him understand the perspective of all stakeholders in the drug industry.

Democrats have expressed concerns over Azar’s tenure as a pharmaceutical executive, a position he left in January.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem super PAC campaign urges Republicans to back impeachment Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Trump vetoes measure ending US support for Saudi-led war in Yemen MORE (R-Ky.), in the meantime, threatened to vote against Azar if he doesn’t support drug reimportation and doesn’t come up with a plan to reimport drugs safely from overseas.

“On the drug reimportation, we’re going to give you a question that you can think about and write,” Paul said. “Everybody says that it’s not safe. I want you to tell me why the drugs are not safe in the European Union and how you would make it safe.”

The senator added later: “You’re going to have to convince me that you're at least open to the idea. The president is … If you can't do that I can’t support you.”

Azar can only afford to lose two Republican votes, if all Democrats vote against him and Vice President Pence breaks a tie.

The hearing in the Senate Health Committee is considered a courtesy hearing, since the Senate Finance Committee is the panel with the power to send his nomination to the Senate floor.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Higher Education Act must protect free speech Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback MORE (R-Tenn.) presented the GOP case for confirming Azar. Alexander noted that the Senate has already confirmed Azar twice for previous roles, he served as a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia and he knows the executive branch as well as the private sector.

“With all these perspectives, you should need no on-the-job training to lead this department and take advantage of this exciting time in biomedical research to speed safe drugs through the system to patients more rapidly,” Alexander said.

Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Wash.), the panel's top Democrat, during her opening remarks urged the nomination to be a “reset” for the department, and for it to “start focusing on the department's mission instead of President Trump’s ideological agenda.”

But she expressed doubts that anything would change.

“Taken together, Mr. Azar, your professional history and statements point to a continuation of the extreme damaging, politically driven approach the Trump administration has taken on health care.”

Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics Sen. Casey presses DNC for presidential debate in Pennsylvania License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) quizzed Azar on ObamaCare.

“Do you commit to faithfully implementing the Affordable Care Act?” he asked.

“If I’m confirmed as secretary, my job is to faithfully implement the programs as passed by Congress, whatever they are, and that would include, if the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and remains such, to implement it as faithfully as possible,” Azar replied.

Azar added, however, that he and the administration both believe ObamaCare should be replaced.

Casey noted that he believes the White House is purposely sabotaging former President Obama’s health-care law, pointing to Trump’s decision to end key payments to insurers, significantly cutting funding for ObamaCare outreach and advertising and spending funds to promote enrollment on a campaign to undermine the law.

“I would disagree that there’s any effort to sabotage the program,” Azar said.

— This report was updated at 11:58 a.m.