Alex Azar '88 confirmed as HHS secretary

by Eileen Brady | 2/15/18 2:00am

On Jan. 24, the Senate confirmed Alex Azar ’88 as the United States secretary of health and human services in a vote of 55 to 43. President Donald Trump nominated Azar to the position in November 2017 to succeed Tom Price, who resigned from the position amid controversy over his use of private and government planes.

“Being appointed secretary of health and human services is one of the greatest privileges of my life,” Azar wrote in an email statement to The Dartmouth.

Azar said he is honored to take on this role and cited Dartmouth faculty as a guiding force on his path to public service.

“I remain indebted to the faculty mentors who so guided my thinking about the role of government and public life, [government professor] Anne Sa’adah and [late government professor] Vincent Starzinger,” Azar wrote. “I encourage all Dartmouth students to use the opportunities presented to them to give back to their communities and their country.”

Prior to his appointment as HHS secretary, Azar served in HHS for six years during former President George W. Bush’s administration, first as HHS general counsel and then as deputy secretary. He then went on to join Eli Lilly and Company, a global pharmaceutical company based in Indianapolis, where he became president of the company’s U.S. branch before leaving in 2017.

According to the HHS website, the department’s mission is to “enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans … by providing for effective health and human services and fostering advances in medicine, public health and social services.”

As secretary, Azar will be responsible for carrying out this mission in addition to overseeing the Food and Drug Administration, Medicare and Medicaid programs and various other agencies and programs.

Azar said during his Senate confirmation hearing that lowering drug prices is one of his priorities as HHS secretary.

According to economics professor and professor at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice Jonathan Skinner, lowering the prices of drugs is necessary.

“It’s certainly true that when you give drug companies a monopoly through the patent system on particular drugs that they’ve developed and there’s a general policy that Medicare and private health insurance have to pay whatever it is that the drug companies charge,” Skinner said. “It’s not surprising that the prices they charge are very high.”

Skinner added that he believes Azar to have a firm understanding of drug pricing from his experience in the private sector and said that it will be interesting to see whether the secretary is able to bring a “stronger set of tools” to cut back on prices based on his time at Eli Lilly.

Ellen Meara, economics and TDI professor, emphasized that Azar’s role as secretary would be focused on the implementation of policy rather than its creation.

“The HHS secretary does not make laws,” Meara said. “The legislature makes the laws, so [Azar’s] role is really one of implementing things.”

She added that the effectiveness of laws will be influenced by how well HHS is run and how the department chooses to implement features of certain laws.

Meara also expressed concern about Azar’s past at Eli Lilly, explaining that while he has said that he wants to reduce drug prices, his experience in the pharmaceutical industry puts him in an “interesting place.”

“[Azar] has very unique perspective, information, and contacts, but you also might be worried about conflicts,” Meara said.

President of the Association of Alumni of Dartmouth Louisa Guthrie ’79 said that despite the political nature of the position, Azar’s appointment is exciting for the Dartmouth community.

“Whenever a Dartmouth alum is appointed to a position like this, it’s exciting for the school,” Guthrie said. “It should show well on Dartmouth. Obviously, we live in a very politically-charged environment right now, but, in general, it should show well on Dartmouth.”