December 1, 2017 Blogs

3 takeaways from Alex Azar’s confirmation hearing

December 1

Washington, D.C. — President Trump promised that his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex M. Azar II, would be a “star for lower drug prices.” Here are three takeaways from Azar’s confirmation hearings.

”Drug prices are too high.”

There. He said it at the Wednesday, Nov. 29 confirmation hearing with the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.

We know it. We have heard from thousands of you who have been left reeling from sticker shock at skyrocketing drug prices.

In Azar’s opening statements, he listed addressing the drug pricing problem as a top priority.

“First, drug prices are too high,” he said. “The President has made this clear. So have I.”

Our organization is hopeful he will keep his word. Republican and Democrats at the hearing expressed skepticism and pushed for answers from the former Eli Lilly executive. All but four of the 18 lawmakers used their opening remarks and questions to ask Azar about drug pricing or closely related issues.

Azar frequently brought up fighting patent abuses that stall less expensive generic drugs from reaching consumers as a way he would go about improving the sky-high price of pharmaceuticals.

STAT reported those duties are actually outside of Azar’s wheelhouse:

“Indeed, any of the major patent system changes he suggested Wednesday would fall to the Patent and Trademark Office Director or, more likely, to Congress,” the publication reported.

Azar emphasized he was not beholden to the pharmaceutical industry and aimed to serve the American people.

Sidestepping the blame game

When pushed for specific answers as to who should be culpable and what the consequences should be for pharmaceutical companies spiking drug prices, Azar acknowledged the problem, but pivoted to generalities and blamed “the system.”

“The insulin prices have been significant as increases have been significant for all drug prices. The problem is that system. The system has to get fixed. That’s the problem,” he said.

We’ve heard this talk before.

Our take:

Drug corporations are responsible for the price they set. Americans deserve a lot more than talk. We need real action to lower drug prices, including more transparency into prices, cheaper generics faster, and serious conversations among policymakers about what the consequences should be for bad actors that take advantage of the American public to the tune of billions.

That includes the three companies responsible for a majority stake in insulin that have led the charge in price gouging that market, hurting 6 million Americans who rely on the nearly 100-year-old drug to stay alive.

Here’s how a Yale doctor put it: “from 2010 to 2015, the price of Lantus (made by Sanofi) went up by 168 percent; the price of Levemir (made by Novo Nordisk) rose by 169 percent; and the price of Humulin R U-500 (made by Eli Lilly) soared by 325 percent.” Meanwhile, patients struggled with the rising cost of insulin.

Our take:

It would be nice to know at the next hearing, given the fact people with diabetes have been hurt by high insulin prices, if Azar regrets those increases that occurred during his time at the company.

Importing drugs? Azar lukewarm, a divergence from President Trump’s former remarks

“The American people think it’s BS you can’t buy drugs from Europe, or from Canada, Mexico or other places,” Sen. Rand Paul (KY) said to Azar.

The Hill reported in January that Trump said consumers should be able to import lower-cost drugs.

Azar said at the hearing he is “against unsafe reimportation.”

“What I want you to tell me is why the drugs are not safe in the European Union, and how you’d make it safe,” Paul said.

He didn’t get an answer.

Our take:

We know that patients unable to afford U.S. drug prices are already turning to Canada for drugs they need, and believe that, with strong safety provisions, importation of drugs from Canada and from other developed countries can strengthen competition and help break the monopoly pricing power now wielded by drug corporations.

It is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of high drug prices writ large. We need a set of policy changes that includes Medicare negotiations, transparency from Pharmacy Benefit Managers, faster approval of generics, affordable access to drugs developed using taxpayer dollars, and prices based on the value of drugs to patients. Reforms such as these are needed to fundamentally change the rules and make drugs affordable for everyone who needs them.

Are you suffering under the cost of high drugs? Tell us how those prices are hurting you. We hope to reach policy makers like the future health and human services secretary so they can help solve the drug pricing problem with on-the-ground information from suffering Americans.


Patients For Affordable Drugs is the only independent national patient organization focused exclusively on achieving policy changes to lower the price of prescription drugs.