January 24, 2018

Senator Warren Delivers Floor Speech Opposing Alex Azar Nomination for HHS Secretary

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) today delivered a speech on the Senate floor opposing the nomination of Alex Azar to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). In her speech, Senator Warren criticized Mr. Azar's unwillingness to answer questions during his confirmation hearing about whether he would hold large drug companies accountable for breaking the law and expressed concern that Mr. Azar would continue the Trump Administration's efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

The full text of her remarks is available below.

Remarks by Senator Elizabeth Warren
January 23, 2018

Mr. President,

I rise today to urge my colleagues to vote against the confirmation of Alex Azar to serve as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS.

You know, when Congress confirms somebody to be HHS Secretary, they're putting that person in charge of some of the most important decisions made by the federal government - decisions that touch the lives of every family in America. The safety of the food inside our refrigerators, the quality of the nursing home where our grandmother lives, the price of our health insurance policy, the government's response to a flu outbreak. On these issues and many more, the HHS Secretary calls the shots.

When Congress debated Tom Price's nomination to be Secretary of Health and Human Services one year ago, I said that we should not hand over the keys to this agency unless we were absolutely sure that he would put the American people first every minute of every day. And let's be honest: Tom Price did not clear that bar - he didn't even come close. When he was nominated, Tom Price already had a track record of using his position in government to help exactly one person: Tom Price.

But Senate Republicans were so excited to get started gutting the Affordable Care Act and ripping up Medicaid that they jammed his nomination through without a single Democratic vote.

Well, it turns out, we're looking at someone whose record is a pretty good way to judge how hard they're going to fight for the American people. Because Tom Price didn't spend his time as HHS Secretary working for American families. He spent it burning taxpayer dollars as he flew around on private jets and military aircraft. During the eight months that Tom Price was on the job, Tom Price put his own interests before those of the American people - again and again and again.

And now President Trump has nominated Alex Azar to be Tom Price's replacement as Secretary of HHS. Republicans have been trying to spin Mr. Azar as a breath of fresh air - someone who can be trusted to stay off private jets - while he helps them carry out their plans to gut the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid without attracting quite so much unwanted attention.

The American people aren't fooled by the spin. Because in the ways that matter most, Alex Azar is like Tom Price. Mr. Azar's resume reads like a how-to manual for profiting off government service. About a decade ago, he worked in government, helping to regulate the nation's most profitable drug companies. And when he left, he shot straight through the revolving door and became an executive at Eli Lilly drug company. Last year, they paid him more than $3.5 million - not bad.

And now he wants to swing right back through the revolving door and once again regulate those same drug companies - regulate them until at least he decides to go back through the revolving door again and make more money.

I don't think private sector experience should disqualify anyone from serving. And I'm rooting as hard as anyone for an HHS Secretary who actually cares about the job. But the American people deserve to know that the person running HHS is looking out for them - and not for his own bank account or for the profits of his former employer or what makes him more marketable to his next employer.

And that's why Mr. Azar faced some tough questions at his confirmation hearing before the HELP Committee about whether he would be willing to hold giant drug companies accountable when they break the law. After all, he worked for Eli Lilly while they were cleaning up the mess after being forced to pay the largest criminal fine of its kind in U.S. history - a punishment for lying about one of its drugs and peddling that drug to nursing homes as a treatment for dementia and Alzheimer's with no proof that it worked. The word for that by the way is fraud. And Eli Lilly's scheme cost the government- and taxpayers- billions of dollars.

Now Mr. Azar starts out by saying the right thing about this. He said "Oh, that sort of behavior is unacceptable. Of course, anyone who breaks the law should be held accountable." Sounds Great. But when I scratched below the surface, and when I pressed just a little bit harder and asked him to give the American people something a little more than a polished talking point, he started dancing around in his chair, bobbing and weaving and doing everything he could to avoid answering the question.

Mr. Azar said he believed that law breakers should be held accountable. So, I asked him five separate times during his confirmation hearing whether he thought Eli Lilly's settlement represented adequate accountability for the company's illegal behavior. Five times in a row, he dodged and danced and he refused to give a straight answer. I asked him twice whether CEOs should be held personally accountable when drug companies like Eli Lilly break the law. Both times, he squirmed away from the question like it was some kind of snake that would bite him.

The American people deserve better than an HHS Secretary who struggles to answer the question of whether giant drug companies and their CEOs should face the music when they cheat taxpayers and lie about drugs.

And on the topic of the Affordable Care Act, it's the same story all over again. Mr. Azar spent his whole confirmation hearing before the HELP Committee pretending that the Trump Administration hasn't been trying to rip up health care coverage for tens of millions of Americans. He actually sat before the committee, and boy butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, saying things like, "Oh, I don't think the Administration wanted fewer people to enroll in health insurance coverage. I'm sure they just cut the enrollment period in half because they thought it would improve access to insurance." He actually said that.

When I heard that, I wondered if he thought we were stupid. His answer was so ridiculous that I even asked him a follow-up question in writing to make sure I had it right, and he responded about the Trump Administration cutting the period of time people can enroll in health insurance: "I do not agree with the characterization that the Administration or the Department has made an effort to undercut open enrollment." You just can't make this stuff up.

Republicans want to pretend that Alex Azar is totally different from Tom Price because Tom Price was a terrible HHS Secretary who didn't put the American people first. But I don't see the difference. I see someone who doesn't want to say it out loud, but who intends to behave exactly like Tom Price when he sits down behind Tom Price's old desk. He will support efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Gut efforts to enroll people in health insurance. Take away Medicaid from people who need it the most.

No one here should be fooled. This week is the one-year anniversary of Tom Price's confirmation hearings before the Senate. And we know how that ended.

The American people deserve better. They deserve an HHS Secretary who will put them first. I will be voting against Alex Azar because I don't believe that he meets that standard.