[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ant drug prices so high that those who need them die because they can’t afford them? Then Alex Azar, Donald Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), is your man.
Azar is Trump’s pick to replace Tom Price, who had to resign after only ten months due to his frequent and illegal use of government funded private planes, among other corruptions. It couldn’t have been easy for Trump to find a replacement who is even worse. But Azar, who spent the last six years as the head of the giant pharmaceutical corporation Eli Lilly, fits the bill.
Azar exemplifies the worst of revolving-door Washington. Based on his history, he will, if confirmed, use that high-level government position to exploit the American people to enrich Big Pharma and line his own pockets. That’s what he did the last time he was in government.
From 2001 to 2007, Azar served as the general counsel and then deputy director of HHS. While in those positions, he implemented policies that benefited big business and hurt the American people. He helped create, for example, the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, which prevents Medicare from negotiating prescription drug prices. This policy drives up the cost of medicines for older Americans, forcing them to choose between paying for lifesaving prescriptions and putting food on the table.
While Azar was at HHS, the agency was investigating Eli Lilly Corporation for the systemic and illegal marketing of its drug Zyprexa for off-label uses. Brazenly, instead of serving the public interest, Azar saw this as an opportunity to sell himself to Eli Lilly as a lobbyist. When he left government to work for the Big Pharma corporation, he used his government connections to negotiate a sweetheart criminal settlement that benefited Eli Lilly and enriched himself at the expense of the public interest.
But Alex Azar goes beyond your run of the mill swamp denizen. His greed has had deadly consequences. James Elliott is a trustee of T1International, a UK Charity dedicated to expanding insulin access to all who need it. He wrote about the results of Azar’s deadly greed in The Nation:
Shane Patrick Boyle, a founder of Zine Fest Houston, died on March 18 after his GoFundMe campaign to pay for insulin came up $50 short. Alec Raeshawn Smith, age 26, was found dead in his apartment on June 27. He was rationing his insulin after he aged out of his parent’s insurance coverage.
During Azar’s tenure as US vice president and then president of Eli Lilly, the corporation increased the list price of Humalog insulin by 345 percent from just over $2,600 to more than $9,000. In order to gouge the 30 million Americans living with diabetes, Azar had to ensure that one of the other two companies that manufactures insulin also price gouged at the same level. Engaging in this coordination would obviously be illegal. But as the chart below shows, that doesn’t seem to have been an impediment.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) wrote a letter to the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to “investigate whether pharmaceutical companies manufacturing insulin products have colluded or engaged in anticompetitive behavior in setting their drug prices.”
Alongside the call for federal investigations, there are five state level investigations and inquiries (Minnesota, California, Florida, New Mexico and Washington) and a civil class action lawsuit underway against the company. These are in addition to the company being fined in Mexico because Eli Lilly, “conspired for years to make badly needed medicine artificially expensive.”
When looking at the direct competitor to Lilly’s insulin product, the collusion is even more obvious: The prices rise in such lockstep that it is impossible to distinguish between the two lines on the following chart showing their respective price increases.
Presidential cabinet nominees should be held to the highest standards. Those positions are ones of public trust. Alex Azar’s track record of loyalty to the pharmaceutical industry, together with his obvious utter disregard for the health and wellbeing of the American people, should preclude him from becoming the Secretary of HHS. If his coziness to Big Pharma is not enough, the ongoing criminal and civil investigations and actions against Eli Lilly and the nominee himself should preclude him from ever holding the public’s trust again.
Mitch McConnell and other GOP Senate leaders are trying to jam Azar’s nomination through at lighting speed while the American people are distracted by the holiday season. The Republicans have scheduled the first of two hearings on his confirmation for November 29. Confirming him as HHS Secretary is certain to lead to even higher prices for drugs essential to the health and well-being of the American people.
This terrible nomination can be defeated, but we need to act quickly and forcefully. Now is the time to call your Senators at 202-224-3121 and tell them to vote NO on confirming Big Pharma’s Alex Azar as HHS Secretary. Then, tell all of your friends and family to do the same. Together, we will rise up to keep this swamp dweller out of the halls of power.