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Alex Azar, pharmaceutical chief, tapped to lead HHS

Former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar has been nominated to lead HHS, President Donald J. Trump announced Nov. 13. The 50-year-old Azar had previously served in President George W. Bush’s administration as HHS general counsel and later deputy secretary.

Azar is best known, however, for heading the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly’s U.S. division. Azar left HHS in 2007 and spent almost a decade at Eli Lilly, though he is regarded by many observers as experienced in healthcare and well-informed on policy. Azar would take over an agency still reeling from the sudden departure of former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who resigned after a scandal involving his use of public funds for expensive private air travel.

Because Eli Lilly’s U.S. headquarters is located in Indiana, Azar has long had ties to Vice President Mike Pence, who previously served as governor of the state. Azar also served with acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan under the Bush administration.

Though Azar is known to be a conservative (he is a Yale Law graduate who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and also advised presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in 2012), he is seen as more of a pragmatist and not a hard-right ideologue, according to a recent report in Politico. Azar already faces detractors on the Democratic side of the aisle, who view his long tenure at Eli Lilly as a sign that he would be predisposed to favor the powerful pharmaceutical lobby on Capitol Hill.

Azar will face Senate confirmation in the coming weeks: the first hearing with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has been scheduled for Nov. 29 and the Senate Finance Committee has indicated it will hold a hearing before the end of the year. A permanent HHS chief will play a crucial role as the agency contends with both the ongoing rollout of the Quality Payment Program and political division over the Affordable Care Act (ACA).