Since the begging of October, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been without an official secretary following the ouster of Tom Price, who resigned due to public outrage over his extensive and costly travel on private jets for government business and his personal use. However, the department – tasked with regulating the pharmaceutical industry among other key functions — will soon have a new secretary, as recent media reports suggest that President Donald Trump has all but confirmed his pick for the position.
According to a report published last Tuesday in Politico, the president has “signed off” on Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and HHS deputy secretary under George W. Bush. Three administration officials told Politico that Azar had been shortlisted for the job, though one cautioned that the pick has yet to be formalized by an official announcement.
Azar’s pick would be a welcome choice for the U.S.’ massive pharmaceutical industry, as Azar, following his tenure at HHS, served on the board of U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. Joining the company in 2007 as senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications, Azar eventually worked his way up to become president of the company’s U.S. branch in 2012, a position he held until earlier this year when he resigned to pursue “new leadership opportunities.”
While at Lilly, Azar oversaw the sale of some of the company’s most profitable and controversial products. These include: recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which Lilly bought from Monsanto and which increases the risk of developing breast and gastrointestinal cancers; Thimerosal, a mercury-containing vaccine preservative linked to neurodevelopmental problems in infants and children; and Prozac, a highly profitable drug used to treat depression that was later found to actually do nothing more than a placebo to decrease most forms of depression but instead increased suicidal tendencies. If confirmed, Azar would be tasked with “assuring the safety, effectiveness, quality, and security” of pharmaceutical products manufactured and sold in the U.S.
In addition, Azar is also very familiar with the pharmaceutical lobby in Washington, having served on the board of directors for BIO, a pharmaceutical lobby, while president of Lilly USA. Eli Lilly heavily lobbies Congress, having spent over $14 million on that activity over the past two years and having donated over $1.6 million to political candidates during last year’s election cycle.
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Lilly is also known for its “revolving door” hiring practices, with Azar being just one example of former government employees being offered lucrative jobs by the pharmaceutical giant. According to Open Secrets, 58 out of Lilly’s 77 lobbyists have previously held government jobs.
In addition, Azar has campaign contribution connections to both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. While Azar was president, Lilly made substantial contributions to Pence’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign. Lilly has been one of Pence’s most generous donors, having donated a total of over $64,000 during the course of his political career. Though Lilly as a business chose to lavish campaign funds upon Hillary Clinton last election cycle, Azar personally gave $2,700 to the Trump Victory fund-raising committee following last year’s Republican convention.
A fox dressed up as a chicken is still a fox
Since leaving his position at Lilly earlier this year, Azar has publicly decried the fact that “patients are paying too much for drugs.” However, given his background, there is ample cause to be skeptical regarding Azar’s sudden about-face. Indeed, Azar’s statements at prior speaking engagements have shown him to be opposed to government measures to restrict pharmaceutical company profiteering and to limit improper marketing practices.
This is hardly surprising, given that Lilly has been caught bribing physicians to prescribe its products to patients and promoting off-label use for several of its products. In addition, Azar in the past has spoken out in favor of weakening drug-safety approval standards even though prescription drugs, taken as directed, kill upwards of 100,000 Americans every year.
Clearly, choosing Azar to lead HHS would strongly conflict with Trump’s public stance on the pharmaceutical industry. Since becoming president, Trump has pledged to lower drug prices for all Americans. He reasserted this promise during a cabinet meeting last Monday — a day before the Politico story all but confirming Azar’s selection — where he stated that drug prices were “out of control.”
Yet, picking a pharmaceutical executive such as Azar is highly unlikely to do much to help control the growing cost of pharmaceuticals in the United States. If chosen, Azar’s appointment to head HHS would essentially confirm that Trump is more than fine with “big pharma’s” influence behind closed doors. His nomination of Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who championed the interests of pharmaceutical opiate manufacturers over the public interest, to head the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) – from which Marino has since withdrawn under pressure – was an earlier example of how Trump’s actions fail to align with his rhetoric when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry.
By adopting both “private” and “public” stances on the issues, Trump continues to serve the nation’s top corporations and its oligarchs, much like his former rival Hillary Clinton. Yet, Trump has long attempted to hide this agenda behind a veneer of robust populist rhetoric, a disguise that will continue to lose its effectiveness as Trump keeps stocking the “swamp,” rather than draining it. Having already appointed Raytheon’s top lobbyist to serve as Secretary of the Army, a billionaire investor to serve as Commerce Secretary despite the numerous conflicts of interest in his portfolio and a fossil fuel industry-funded attorney to head the EPA – among other examples – Trump is making “American great again” for American billionaires, like himself.
Top photo | Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar meets reporters at the HHS Department in Washington, Thursday, June 8, 2006. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)