Yesterday, Alex Azar was sworn in as the Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services. A key question is whether Azar will take action against high drug prices, and if so, what he will do. At his confirmation hearing, Azar stated clearly that “drug prices are too high.” And during Azar’s swearing-in ceremony, the President stated that Azar was “going to get those prescription drug prices way down.” But I’m skeptical that Secretary Azar will do much to address the problem in the near term.
To be clear, I’m skeptical for a host of reasons, none of which are necessarily reflective of Secretary Azar. Much like health care, drug pricing is complicated. HHS should (and will) worry about potential unintended consequences of drug pricing proposals, proceeding cautiously and taking concerns seriously. HHS’ ability to act may be limited without Congressional involvement, and Congress has thus far been unable to act on this issue. Other proposals may take years to develop or implement, leaving patients without relief in the interim.
As a former President of Eli Lilly, Secretary Azar understands the drug pricing system deeply. He’s absolutely right that “there’s not one action that all of a sudden fixes this.” But if Azar is under pressure to deliver drug pricing changes in the short term, I’d expect to see focus in three main areas. Here’s the problem, though: at least two of these would not necessarily lower drug prices individually or drug spending overall. They might well increase overall spending. Importantly, that may not be a bad thing (as I’ll explain). But they won’t hurt the bottom line of the drug companies the President believes are “getting away with murder,” and they may well bolster it. The third area may lower prices – but it wouldn’t be Azar’s accomplishment.