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Ex-Pharmaceutical Executive Chosen To Lead HHS


We have one perspective now on Alex Azar. He's the one-time pharmaceutical executive nominated by President Trump to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Obamacare. Azar would replace former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who quit after criticism of his use of private jets.

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson knows a lot about all of this. He once ran the Department of Health and Human Services. And when he did, he hired Alex Azar. He's on the line. Governor, good morning.

TOMMY THOMPSON: Good morning, Steve. Well, it's great just talking to you. It's not Azahr (ph). It's Azar.

INSKEEP: Azar. Thank you very much. OK, we've already learned something that we didn't know about Alex Azar. Let's delve into his background a little bit here, though, because President Trump, as you know, has sharply criticized drug companies for high drug prices, has said he wants to crack down, and now he names a former pharmaceutical executive. Why is someone with that background the right person for the job?

THOMPSON: Well, if you look back further, Alex is an extremely intelligent, very highly ethical individual. And when we had the 9/11 and then we had the scare with Cipro and the need for Cipro, he helped me negotiate - he helped to negotiate with me the lowering of the price with Bayer. So he's already...

INSKEEP: Oh. This is getting a drug that was necessary to save people's lives out very quickly to the public. OK. So he's got that experience is what you're saying.

THOMPSON: That is correct. And he as an individual is dedicated to the public good. And he's going to do just an excellent job on that. And the president wants to lower pharmaceutical prices. And I've discussed this with Alex. And I'm absolutely confident he wants to accomplish the same objective. So I think he'll be...

INSKEEP: Really? He'd be willing to go back to Eli Lilly...

THOMPSON: ...The right person at the right time.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. I'm sorry to interrupt, governor. The line's a little difficult here. But he would be willing to go back to Eli Lilly, the company for which he once worked, and say, you must profit less from your drugs?

THOMPSON: I think he will. I don't - I have no doubt in my mind that he will do that and do it effectively.

INSKEEP: Now, let me ask about the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, which of course...

THOMPSON: Yeah, sure.

INSKEEP: ...Is overseen by this agency. And it seems that if you're President Trump's HHS secretary, you've got a couple of options. You can try to make it work in a conservative way or you can try to crash the system. Do you think that Azar is likely to try to make Obamacare crash and burn?

THOMPSON: No. I think what he's going to do is he's going to take a look at all the rules and regulations and find out the onerous rules on the industry, on the consumers and on the government, and find ways to change them. If you look back in the Obamacare when it was originally passed, tremendous powers were delegated to the secretary of Health and Human Services. And he has a tremendous opportunity to change the Obamacare, to make it effective and make it workable. That's what he's going to do.

INSKEEP: Do you think that he can do that with this administration, that he can do that in ways that more people end up with quality health insurance instead of fewer?

THOMPSON: Absolutely, because with his help and the Office of Management and Budget with Commissioner Mike (ph) Mulvaney, who wants to accomplish the same thing, I think you're going to have a dynamic duo. And with Joe Gorbin (ph) in the OMB Office, who used to work for me as well. These individuals know what needs to be done to make the Obamacare actually work and be effective and reduce the onerous requirements. And that's what Alex is going to do as the new secretary. And I'm absolutely certain they will accomplish it and make the Obamacare, unless Congress changes - that's up to them - but while it still exists, then Alex is going to make it effective and workable.

INSKEEP: In about 10 seconds, President Trump has said he'd like to let Obamacare fail. It sounds like you don't think Alex Azar's actually going to do that.

THOMPSON: That's not Alex's responsibility. Alex's responsibility as secretary is to make it work. And that's what he will make happen.

INSKEEP: Governor, thanks very much. It's been a pleasure talking with you this morning.

THOMPSON: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Tommy Thompson was once governor of Wisconsin and also served under President George W. Bush as secretary of Health and Human Services, the very job for which Alex Azar - whose name we're now pronouncing correctly, we hope - has been nominated by President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUSSEF KAMAAL'S "YO CHAVEZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.