The Best Way To Keep Big Pharma Interests Out Of Coronavirus Response Is To Ditch Azar

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 27: HHS Secretary Alex Azar, testifies during the House Ways and Committee hearing on the Health and Human Services FY2021 budget in Longworth Building on Thursday, February 27, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
HHS Secretary Alex Azar testifies during the House Ways and Committee hearing on the Health and Human Services FY2021 budget on Thursday, February 27, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

Wars, natural disasters, public health crises – these are the moments when people need to be able to trust that their government is working well, working for them, and telling them the truth. But as the American people prepare for the threat of a coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has challenged that trust on a number of fronts. One immediate step that President Trump must take to restore that sacred trust is to fire Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and replace him with a public health expert that the American people can have faith in.

Here is why this is such a critical first step: with Secretary Azar, we never know if he is working in the best interests of patients and public health, or if he’s focused on the needs, interests and profits of the pharmaceutical industry.

Before he moved through the revolving door into HHS, Azar was a top executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, where he took home millions of dollars and was sent off to the White House with a severance package of $1.6 million. While he was at Eli Lilly he worked to boost drug prices, and during his time at the company patients saw massive price increases on drugs treating diabetes, osteoporosis, attention deficit disorder, heart disease and more. Eli Lilly was named in a class action lawsuit alleging price-fixing of insulin during Azar’s tenure.

Last week Azar went before Congress and said that he “can’t control” the price of any potential coronavirus vaccines or treatments, can’t guarantee that they will be affordable for every American and said we need to count on “the private sector to invest.” Now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the White House is considering paying hospitals and doctors to cover patients who can’t afford visits. So why can’t Azar reassure the public that he would be willing to put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to make sure people get the care they need – regardless of ability to pay? People have to ask the legitimate question: is he doing everything he can to protect the public, or is he still looking out for pharmaceutical company interests?

The pharmaceutical industry’s influence over the administration is a serious concern generally and has been a major factor in preventing any meaningful action to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. But in moments like these, when the attention of a scared public is focused on every word being uttered by our government officials, the fact that we can’t trust our top health care official to set aside his pro-pharma bias is deeply problematic.

This isn’t paranoid speculation; we know that the pharmaceutical industry is already pulling out the stops to influence policymaking around the coronavirus response. When House Democrats, led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), sent a letter to President Trump raising concerns about giving pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights and monopolies over coronavirus drugs developed using taxpayer dollars, pharmaceutical industry lobbyists were reported to have pressured members of Congress into removing their names from the letter.

Removing Secretary Azar is especially important because the administration has already seriously depleted the American people’s trust in their ability to manage this crisis. We are already seeing bungled responses and lack of communication with local communities. President Trump has focused on downplaying the threat to try to prop up the stock market and lashing out at the media. He has claimed, contrary to public health experts, that the virus will disappear as soon as the weather gets warm, that we are “very close to a vaccine” and that the number of cases in the United States is “going very substantially down, not up.”

We know what we need from our government officials right now. We need them to be doing everything possible to ensure pharmaceutical companies produce vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus as quickly as possible. We need them to take on the pharmaceutical industry and guarantee that any vaccines or treatments produced are safe, effective, accessible and affordable for every American. And critically, we need to trust that they are telling us the truth, putting patients and public health first and are not being influenced by or biased toward the pharmaceutical industry.

The only way this can happen is if President Trump does the right thing and removes Secretary Azar from his position, installs a public health expert who can be trusted to put the public’s interests ahead of the pharmaceutical industry, and allows him or her to communicate with the public without having to go through Vice President Mike Pence’s political appointees. If he doesn’t, then this will be just one more reason for the public to distrust this administration, and it will come at a moment when trust in our government and our public health institutions matters most for people across the country.

Kyle Herrig is the founder and president of Accountable.US, a nonpartisan watchdog group that runs the Patients Over Pharma campaign.

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