Senate Confirms Alex Azar as New Secretary of Health and Human Services

Alex Azar / Getty Images

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar as the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Azar will have to focus on Obamacare’s ongoing fiscal woes as well as the administration's goal to reduce the cost of pharmaceuticals, the New York Times reports.

The 55-43 vote was split primarily along party lines, with Republicans such as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) praising Azar for his integrity.

"You’re one of the best public servants that I’ve seen in the whole time that I’ve been here," Hatch said at the Senate hearing.

Republicans are still grappling with how to manage Obamacare after failing to repeal it fully, and during  Senate hearings, Azar maintained the law is fundamentally flawed.

"The Affordable Care Act has failed millions of Americans who have lost the plans they liked and the doctors they liked," Azar said.

Various Democratic senators have criticized Azar for his positions ranging from Obamacare and drug prices to whether employers are free to not provide contraceptive coverage.

"Mr. Azar says he agrees that prices are too high, but he does not seem ready or willing to do much about it," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said.

Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), the senior Democrat on the Senate health committee, said Azar is "out of touch" on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision granting a constitutional right to abortion.

"I’m alarmed that Mr. Azar believes a woman’s employer should be able to decide, based on ideology, whether or not her birth control should be covered. I’m alarmed by his extreme and out-of-touch views on Roe v. Wade," Murray said.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket with Hillary Clinton, said Azar may worsen the situation for Obamacare.

"The Trump administration’s determination to destroy the Affordable Care Act through executive action has destabilized our health care system and threatened coverage for millions," Kaine said. "I fear Alex Azar could make things even worse."

But Azar said the Trump administration has not tried to simply sabotage Obamacare; rather, Republicans have repealed undesirable parts of the law such as the individual mandate. He argued it is important to get Americans insured while not overburdening them with penalties.

"What I do not support is forcing 6.7 million Americans to pay $3 billion of penalties to not buy something they don’t want to buy through a mandate upon them, 90 percent of whom make $75,000 a year or less," Azar said.

Azar testified that he would use his experience in the pharmaceutical industry to help the American people by working to reduce drug prices.

"Drug prices are too high," Azar said. "The president has made this clear. So have I. Through my experience helping to implement Part D and with my extensive knowledge of how insurance, manufacturers, pharmacy and government programs work together, I believe I can bring skills and experiences to the table that can help address these issues."

Azar also voiced support for Medicaid work requirements, which some states have considered implementing, or are even beginning to implement after the Trump administration issued a waiver allowing it. Kentucky is one state that is moving forward with a requirement to compel low-income individuals to work or otherwise engage in their communities to qualify for Medicaid.

"One of the best ways to improve the long-term health of low-income Americans is to empower them with skills and employment, for those who are able to work," Azar said.

Azar’s predecessor, Tom Price, stepped down as health secretary in September following backlash over his use of private and government planes while leading the department.

Azar has said he would work "in the interests of all Americans, not in the interests of any trade group, not in the interests of any company."

"This is the most important job I will ever have in my lifetime," he added.