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Senate committee hints at what it will ask Alex Azar at confirmation hearing for HHS secretary

The Trump Administration nominated Azar as HHS head in order to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid, while addressing parts of the ACA and drug prices.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Alex Azar, the nominee to take the helm as secretary of Health and Human Services, will undergo a confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Jan 9.

Hospital executives can look to what any new HHS Secretary would bring for signals of where healthcare policy is headed and Azar is no exception. The Trump Administration has been voal that it nominated Azar as in order to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid. In November, Azar told the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee that he would also address rising drug prices if confirmed.

[Also: GOP Senator promises prompt confirmation hearing for Trump HHS Secretary pick Alex Azar]

Azar is a former HHS official and pharmaceutical executive at Eli Lilly.

Hatch this week gave a glimpse of what to expect at the hearing in a statement announcing it will take place.

"Next week's hearing will give Finance Committee members a firsthand opportunity to hear from Mr. Azar about his plans to help mitigate Obamacare's corrosive effects, while ensuring Medicare and Medicaid are strengthened and maintained. This hearing is an important step in advancing a fair and transparent vetting of this nominee," Hatch said in a statement. "Mr. Azar has demonstrated that he has what it takes to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and that he will tackle the challenges facing the American healthcare system head-on."

As is often the case with the federal nominees and appointees, not everyone agrees with Hatch's assessment.

"We believe that elevating Mr. Azar to Secretary of HHS would be detrimental to Americans' access to quality, affordable health care across the country," according to a letter posted by Public Citizen that it said is signed by 60 groups representing clinicians, consumers, public health experts, and patients. "At a time when our country is facing a crisis of access to affordable medicines, we need an untainted and credible advocate for patients and our healthcare system. A former prescription drug company executive with a history of spiking the prices of lifesaving medicines simply is unqualified to address the needs of our national health care system."

Azar has already submitted full copies of his tax returns in preparation for the confirmation hearing. If confirmed, he would replace former HHS secretary Tom Price, MD, who resigned in September after revelations that he used private jets for travel, a practice that cost more than $1 million in taxpayer money.

Price, an orthopedic surgeon, tried to ease Obama-era burdens on physicians by scaling back mandatory bundled payment models and compliance with the merit-based incentive payment system rules under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act.

During his short tenure, his focus was the smaller, independent physician practices, in policies that moved payment models from hospital-centric to physician-centric.

In Price's absence, Don J. Wright of Virginia has been serving as acting secretary. Wright serves as the HHS deputy assistant secretary for Health and director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Azar has already submitted full copies of his tax returns in preparation for the confirmation hearing. In November he told the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee that he would address rising drug prices if indeed he is confirmed.

Twitter: @JELagasse
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