This post has been updated.
Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and a top health official during the George W. Bush administration, is now the leading candidate to head the Department of Health and Human Services, two Republicans briefed on the matter said Tuesday.
Azar served a decade at Lilly USA, the biggest affiliate of Eli Lilly and Co., including five years as president. He directly led a biomedicines division that covered, among other areas, neuroscience, immunology and cardiology, and was also responsible for the company’s sales and marketing operations.
Under Bush, he served as the department’s general counsel, working on the administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing anthrax attacks, stem-cell policy and the advent of the Medicare prescription drug benefits. He then served two years as deputy secretary.
After stepping down from Lilly USA in January, he founded the health-care consulting firm Seraphim Strategies.
Trump’s first HHS secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September after revelations that he had racked up more than $1 million in expenses by traveling across the United States and the globe on noncommercial aircraft. Politico first reported that Azar had emerged as the top contender to replace Price.
Azar is well respected by his fellow Republicans — including White House Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg, who was with him at HHS — as well as many in the health-care industry.
Both of the HHS secretaries for whom Azar worked are supporting him for the position.
“If the president is looking for an experienced, competent conservative who is confirmable, Alex would be a great choice,” Mike Leavitt said Tuesday.
Tommy Thompson praised Azar’s “record of proven competence” and combination of private- and public-sector management. “He is an experienced leader with deep substantive health-care knowledge,” Thompson said in an email.
The White House declined to comment Tuesday, but a longtime Republican health policy expert said consideration of Azar as the department’s next leader “is extremely far down the road.”
One Republican briefed on the decision said White House officials have privately expressed some concerns about Azar’s ties to the drug industry, which Trump has attacked repeatedly, including on Monday.
“The drug companies, frankly, are getting away with murder, and we want to bring our prices down to what other countries are paying, or at least close and let the other countries pay more,” the president told reporters gathered in the Cabinet Room. “Because they’re setting such low prices that we’re actually subsidizing other countries, and that’s just not going to happen anymore.”
But counterbalancing those concerns are Azar’s credentials for the job, and his ties to a business with a sizable footprint in Indiana put him in good stead with Vice President Pence, the state’s former governor.
Tevi Troy, who succeeded Azar as HHS deputy secretary, said Wednesday that he “made an honest living” after leaving the government and would bring a breadth of knowledge to the secretary’s post. “You’re not going to find anyone with the kind of experience he has,” Troy said.
A Yale University Law School graduate, Azar clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and, after Bill Clinton became president, worked under special counsel Kenneth Starr as he investigated Clinton’s failed Whitewater real estate investments.
Two current HHS officials whose names have been floated for the top post — Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb — are no longer being eyed by Trump for the job, one Republican said.