Senate advances Trump's health secretary nominee

Senate advances Trump's health secretary nominee
© Greg Nash

The Senate on Tuesday advanced the nomination of Alex Azar to be secretary of Health and Human Services over a key hurdle by a 54-43 vote.

Most Democrats voted against advancing Azar, but seven Democrats joined Republicans to move his nomination forward. A vote on final confirmation is expected to soon follow.

Azar will replace Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceWhite House officials discussing potential replacements for FEMA chief: report Overnight Health Care: CBO finds bill delaying parts of ObamaCare costs B | Drug CEO defends 400 percent price hike | HHS declares health emergency ahead of hurricane HHS should look into Azar's close ties to the drug industry MORE, who resigned in September after a firestorm surrounding his travel on private planes.

Backers of Azar tout him as a well-qualified manager, while many Democrats have attacked his time as a pharmaceutical executive at Eli Lilly, pointing to drug price hikes under his watch. 

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He will step into a department that oversees ObamaCare at a time when repeal efforts in Congress appear to have failed and the administration is left with overseeing the law and moving it in somewhat more conservative directions through executive action.

Azar sought to push back on criticism of his time at Eli Lilly during his hearings, saying that he would serve the best interests of the public as secretary and arguing that drug prices are too high.

“Drug prices are too high. The president has made this clear. So have I," Azar said at one his two confirmation hearings, in November.

He generally embraced Republican-leaning solutions, like increasing competition in the marketplace, rather than Democratic-leaning options like allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

He pledged that he would “faithfully” implement the laws that are on the books, including the Affordable Care Act, though he has said he opposes the law on policy grounds.

Democrats have warned about the administration's efforts to "sabotage" the law, for example by cutting back on outreach for signing up.

Azar has long experience in health care, having served as a deputy HHS secretary under President George W. Bush, before his time at Eli Lilly.

Two former HHS secretaries under Bush, Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt, wrote in The Hill this month that Azar has “the track record from his previous time at HHS to be a successful manager.”

But some Democrats weren't convinced.

“He failed to persuade me that he can effectively lead any effort to lower drug prices given his tenure at Eli Lilly, where he worked to raise drug prices on patients,” Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayJudiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh Kavanaugh allegations set stage for Anita Hill sequel Time for action to improve government data analysis MORE (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the health committee, said in announcing her opposition to his nomination. “He indicated in our discussions that he would continue the Administration’s harmful plan to create Trumpcare by sabotage.”