Five takeaways from Trump Health nominee’s hearing

Five takeaways from Trump Health nominee’s hearing
© Camille Fine

Alex Azar, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) took his first step forward Wednesday at a relatively quiet confirmation hearing by the Senate Health Committee.

If confirmed, the former HHS general counsel and deputy secretary would replace former Rep. Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceConspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Chris Christie Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet MORE (R-Ga.), who resigned after reports that he’d repeatedly used private jets to fly around the country at taxpayer expense.

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Here are five takeaways from the hearing:

Azar is almost certain to be confirmed.

Azar needs just 50 votes in the Senate to win confirmation if Vice President Pence breaks a tie, and it seems unlikely his nomination will be derailed.

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It’s hard to see Democrats supporting Azar.

No Democrats backed Price in his confirmation.

During the hearing, Democrats expressed concerns over Azar’s nomination, particularly over his time as a pharmaceutical executive and his support for rolling back ObamaCare’s birth control requirement. They are also worried he’ll continue administrative efforts Democrats view as undermining ObamaCare.

Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersMcConnell accuses Democrats of sowing division by 'downplaying progress' on election security The Hill's Campaign Report: Arizona shifts towards Biden | Biden prepares for drive-in town hall | New Biden ad targets Latino voters Why Democrats must confront extreme left wing incitement to violence MORE (I-Vt.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharEPA delivers win for ethanol industry angered by waivers to refiners It's time for newspapers to stop endorsing presidential candidates Biden marks anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, knocks Trump and McConnell MORE (D-Minn.) announced the day Azar was nominated their plan to oppose him.

Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSecond GOP senator to quarantine after exposure to coronavirus GOP senator to quarantine after coronavirus exposure The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by National Industries for the Blind - Trump seeks to flip 'Rage' narrative; Dems block COVID-19 bill MORE may be the only GOP vote in play.

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) was the only Republican to warn of opposition to Azar’s nomination during Wednesday’s three-hour hearing.

Paul is worried about the former Eli Lilly and Co. executive’s handling of drug importation.

Paul believes drugs should be imported from overseas. Azar said former Food and Drug Administration commissioners from both sides of the aisle have been unable to certify that drug importation is safe.

On Wednesday, Paul questioned why Azar would believe that drugs imported from countries within the European Union would not be safe to use.

“Everybody says that it’s not safe. What I want you tell me is why the drugs are not safe in the European Union and how you would make it safe,” he said.

He also noted that Trump has offered support for drug importation.

“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.”

Trump in January talked about how consumers should be able to import lower-cost drugs.

“Congress will need the courage to step away from the special interests and do what is right for Americans. … Allowing consumers access to imported, safe and dependable drugs from overseas will bring more options to consumers,” stated a health-care proposal from Trump before his inauguration, The Hill reported in January.

Democrats are focused on Azar's pharmaceutical background.

Drug pricing dominated the hearing, as Democrats quizzed Azar over how he would lower the skyrocketing price tag of medicine and worried over his background as a pharmaceutical executive.

Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinKeep teachers in the classroom Cher raised million for Biden campaign at LGBTQ-themed fundraiser Democrats seek balance in backing protests, condemning violence MORE (D-Wis.) questioned Azar over Eli Lilly’s decision to significantly raise the price of insulin, a lifesaving drug for those with Type 1 diabetes.

Azar responded that “increases have been significant for all drug prices,” saying “the system needs to get fixed.”

He specifically mentioned that the list prices of drugs needs to be lowered and also put the onus on insurers in terms of covering insulin, so the out of pocket cost for insulin is low for consumers.  

Baldwin didn’t appear satisfied.  

“That starts with the drug manufacturers, and this feels reminiscent of the [drug pricing] hearing we just had of, ‘it’s a complicated system, it’s this and that,’  ” she said.

Azar says administration isn't sabotaging ObamaCare.

Azar said he would administer ObamaCare as long as it is U.S. law, and that the administration is not seeking to sabotage it.

“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 told Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySecond GOP senator to quarantine after exposure to coronavirus GAO report finds brokers offered false info on coverage for pre-existing conditions Catholic group launches .7M campaign against Biden targeting swing-state voters MORE Jr. (D-Pa.)

Casey pointed to efforts he views as ObamaCare sabotage: Trump’s decisions to end key payments to insurers; to significantly cut funding for ObamaCare outreach; and to shift advertising away from promoting enrollment.

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

Azar supports rolling back birth control requirements

In October, the White House rolled back an ObamaCare requirement that employers cover birth control in their health insurance plans, letting for-profit and nonprofit employers or insurers stop following this mandate for moral and religious reasons.

Azar suggested he supported the effort.

He said he would follow the law, but “I also will, as the president has done, try to balance the conscience objections of organizations and individuals there.”