The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon advanced the nomination of Alex Azar to run HHS, putting him one step closer to heading a department that’s been in turmoil in the Trump administration’s first year.
The 15-12 vote, which fell largely along party lines, clears the way for a vote on the Senate floor to install Azar atop the sprawling health agency, which has been without a permanent leader since Tom Price’s resignation in September amid scrutiny of his use of charter jets.
Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware was the lone Democrat to vote in favor of Azar’s nomination.
A former pharmaceutical executive and HHS official in President George W. Bush’s administration, Azar has won praise throughout the confirmation process for his policy expertise and knowledge of the agency, despite concerns among many Democrats about his opposition to Obamacare and his ties to the drug industry.
The full Senate vote has not yet been scheduled, but multiple people close to the process said Republicans are hoping to confirm Azar by the end of the month. At least three Senate Democrats, including Carper, have indicated they will join Republicans in supporting Azar during the final floor vote.
“By any objective account, Mr. Azar is very well qualified for this important position,” Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said.
If confirmed, Azar will lead the administration’s efforts to scale back the 2010 Affordable Care Act through regulation amid stalled repeal efforts on the Hill. He’s also promised to take on rising drug prices, saying he’ll draw on his experience as an Eli Lilly executive to reform the system. Azar was with the company for about a decade before stepping down as its head of U.S. operations a year ago.
“Every incentive in this system is for higher prices,” Azar said at his nomination hearing before the Finance Committee last week. “No one company’s going to fix that system. That’s why I want to be here with you.”
However, he’s largely supported industry-friendly policies and opposed stronger government interventions, such as requiring Medicare to negotiate drug prices — a progressive policy that President Donald Trump has also expressed support for.
“The president famously said — his words in the 2016 campaign — price-hiking drug companies were getting away with murder,” said Finance ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who voted against Azar’s nomination. “The president has now nominated a drug company executive with a documented history of raising drug prices.”
The committee had originally planned to vote on Azar on Wednesday morning, ahead of a hearing on trade, but not enough members showed up. Instead, the committee huddled again in the afternoon to move Azar’s nomination forward.