President Donald Trump is expected to name former drug industry executive Alex Azar to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to people familiar with the matter.
Azar, who worked at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co., would be the administration’s point person on running—or dismantling—Obamacare, the health program enacted by Trump’s predecessor that insures millions of Americans. He will also oversee Medicare and Medicaid, along with dozens of public health programs and sub-agencies. Trump is in Asia for an extended trip and could still change his mind before a replacement is officially named.
At Lilly, Azar ran U.S. operations. Trump has been highly critical of the drug industry, saying that companies are “getting away with murder” and threatening to use the federal government’s buying power to bring down prices. However, he’s taken no concrete action yet to do so.
Azar left Lilly in January, several months after another senior executive, David Ricks, was named to succeed then-CEO John Lechleiter.
Before spending a decade in Lilly’s executive ranks, Azar was a deputy secretary under former George W. Bush’s HHS secretary Michael Leavitt. A lawyer by training, Azar previously clerked for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
Azar takes over after Trump’s first HHS secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September after his extensive use of private and military jets at taxpayer expense was revealed. Azar, 50, must be approved by the Senate.
Azar has been an advocate for more state flexibility under Obamacare, something Republicans have pushed for in their efforts to repeal it, as well as in a seemingly stalled bipartisan bill to fund insurer subsidies that help Americans afford health costs. As secretary, Azar would have broad authority over many aspects of the program.
“I’m not one to say many good things about Obamacare, but one of the nice things in it is it does give a tremendous amount authority to the secretary of HHS,” Azar said during an interview with Bloomberg TV in June. “There are still changes that can be made to make it work a little better than it has been.”
The Trump administration has slashed funding for advertising Obamacare and cut the budgets of “navigators” who help people enrolling in plans understand their options. Open enrollment is under way now and runs through Dec. 15.
The administration also released rules in October that let employers opt out of providing plans that cover birth control, weakening an Obamacare requirement as part of a wider push to expand religious freedom. Trump also signed an executive order the same month that lets insurers sell short-term plans curtailed under Obamacare that are cheaper and offer fewer benefits.
“He understands health care, he understands the regulatory process, and he’s skilled in his management,” Leavitt said by phone last month. Leavitt was involved in the Trump team’s transition into the White House but said he hadn’t been directly involved in the vetting of Azar. “He’d be an able pilot.”