Despite blasting pharma for "getting away with murder" on multiple occasions, President Donald Trump is expected to pick a former pharmaceutical executive to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Bloomberg reports.
More than a month after Tom Price resigned as the nation's health secretary, Trump has put ex-Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar on the top of his list to replace him, according to several media reports. Azar's name was floated as a top candidate last month. At the time, Politico reported that FDA chief Scott Gottlieb and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma were out of the running.
Azar previously served at HHS for six years, two of them as deputy secretary during the George W. Bush administration. Most recently, he headed up Lilly's U.S. business; he left early this year as part of new CEO David Ricks' reorganization. He's been a member of the industry trade group BIO for four years, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Despite his credentials, Azar would join HHS from an industry that President Trump has harshly criticized on multiple occasions, both in office and during the campaign. During his transition period, the president said pharma was "getting away with murder," and reiterated that quote last month.
But critics have said the administration's actions have largely favored the industry. President Trump selected pharma's favored candidate to run the FDA, and some observers said a draft executive order to tackle drug prices from the administration would only raise them.
Now, having someone with an industry background in the top HHS job could be a positive for pharma as it navigates political issues such as pricing, intellectual property and the opioid epidemic.
Once believed to be under consideration for the HHS post, Gottlieb has said he believes he is "most effective" at the FDA. During his short time at the agency, he's been active in efforts to boost competition and provide some price relief even though the agency isn't in charge of drug pricing.
Continuing on that effort, Gottlieb this week said it's time to "end the shenanigans" of Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies abuses that hinder the ability of generics companies to develop cheap copycats.
The issue has long frustrated some market watchers, who've noted that branded companies can limit the supply of drugs generics makers need to use in developing their own copies. Gottlieb said he's implementing changes at the agency to stop the abuse and that he's planning to work with supply chain companies to ensure that generics makers can get the supplies they need. He also plans to propose more moves in the coming weeks, he told an audience at the Federal Trade Commission.
Before Gottlieb's nomination to run the FDA, he was the biopharmaceutical industry's favorite pick by a wide margin. More recently, at the FierceBiotech Drug Development Forum in September, three biopharma executives agreed that the FDA had been taking steps to facilitate faster approvals prior to Gottlieb's arrival, and that he's the right person to build on that progress.
Tom Price stepped down from the HHS in late September amid a scandal over taxpayer-funded travel. Eric Hargan is currently running the agency as acting secretary.