I’ve run out of jokes about foxes guarding hen houses, but Trump clearly hasn’t.
The President confirmed in a tweet on Monday (because of course) that he was nominating Alex Azar to run the Department of Health and Human Services. Azar would replace Tom Price, whose “public jets for private travel” scandal will probably look quaint when compared to what Azar will do if he’s allowed to lead HHS.
Yes, in an unpleasantly predictable pattern, Trump has found a guy who got filthy rich off a shady industry, then tapped him to be in charge of keeping that industry in check.
Azar is also familiar with both sides of the ol’ revolving door. After an illustrious start clerking for Antonin Scalia (shudder), Azar served as HHS general counsel under George W. Bush, then moved from “regulating” the industry to getting rich off of it when he joined Eli Lilly.
Returning to his old HHS stomping grounds after cashing out at Lilly — what could go wrong?
What’s missing from a lot of the usual flood of outrage is that Azar isn’t just any Big Pharma guy, but an Eli Lilly guy, and Lilly is one of the shadiest of the Big Pharma Shady Bunch.
Lilly has been busted multiple times over the course of the last century for everything from product safety (the fatal-while-also-ineffective Darvon scandal in the ’70s) to misleading marketing (they paid $1.4 billion in 2009 to settle claims of illegally marketing a schizophrenia drug) to outright bribery.
If you have a cold, cynical heart like I do, and human suffering doesn’t move you, Lilly still has you covered: in 2007, the FDA accused them of misleading marketing for a medicine for dogs.
But the most timely example of Eli Lilly cruelty is insulin. In 1941, Lilly was charged with price fixing, colluding with two “competitors” to set matching, arbitrarily high prices for their synthetic insulin product. Today, Eli Lilly is facing allegations of doing the exact same thing: hiking their insulin prices to the same levels, often on the same exact day, as two of its “competitors.” The company is now the subject of at least five state probes, and lawmakers Bernie Sanders and Elijah Cummings are even calling for the feds to step in. At the same time, they’ve been hit with a class-action federal lawsuit for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Real stand-up guys.
And although Lilly’s original insulin price fixing went down before Azar was born, the biggest price hikes happened under his watch. Azar moved up the Lilly ladder quickly, going from senior VP of communications in 2007 to president of Lilly USA — their U.S. arm of operations — by 2012. While he was there, the price of Lilly’s insulin product went up threefold, a ridiculous spike for a drug whose main patent expired nearly a century ago.
In fact, a Credit Suisse report found that, during Azar’s last year with Lilly, 100% of the company’s growth — every single cent they made above their 2015 earnings — was earned by hiking prices. No new drugs, no innovation. Just price hikes.
And this is the guy who’s supposed to be stopping Big Pharma from “getting away with murder.” Ok.
You can often tell a lot about a person by who their friends are, and Azar is no exception. Republicans are stoked for this guy, with Senator Orrin Hatch giddily saying that Azar would be the “tip of the spear” that took down Obamacare.
Azar himself has publicly opposed Obamacare for years, although he did find one good thing to say about it recently: “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.” That’s such textbook foreshadowing that at first I thought it was fake (it’s not).
And of course there’s Trump, who can always be relied upon to say the exact opposite of the truth, who said Azar would be a “star for better healthcare and lower drug prices.” Yikes.
With 8 in 10 Americans already believing that the price of medicine is too damn high, Senators would be wise to torpedo this nomination quickly.