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Health and Human Services nominee Alex Azar, a former president of Eli Lilly should be indicted for price gouging, not picked to oversee a department vital to the public health, says Alex Lawson of Social Security Works

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GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. This Wednesday the U.S. Senate held its first confirmation hearing for Alex Azar to replace Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services. Price resigned last September for having spent over $400,000 on private chartered flights during his brief tenure. Alex Azar is a long-term conservative who most recently was president of one the country’s largest pharmaceutical corporations Eli Lilly and Company. Before that he served in the George W. Bush administration and as law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Many observers in the U.S. healthcare sector argue that Azar would be less ideological than Price was, who had a background in the Tea Party movement. However, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who questioned Azar during his nomination hearing, was very skeptical. SEN. WARREN: You could own up to the fact that you want to cut Medicaid and gut the Affordable Care act like every other member of the Trump administration, but you want to smile and pretend otherwise until you get the job, and, yet, you say exactly the same things that would let you pick up right where Tom Price left off in trying to gut the Affordable Care Act. Tom Price lied through his confirmation hearing, and now you come in here and say the same things he said. No one should be fooled. GREGORY WILPERT: Joining me to discuss Azar’s possible appointment is Alex Lawson. Alex is executive director of Social Security Works, an organization that fights to expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and to lower prescription drug prices. Thanks for joining me today, Alex. ALEX LAWSON: Thanks for having me on. GREGORY WILPERT: In an article that you co-wrote for the Huffington Post recently you argue that Alex Azar would probably be a worse Health and Human Services secretary than Tom Price was. Give us a brief rundown as to why you believe that. ALEX LAWSON: It is, actually, remarkable because it would be very, very difficult to find someone who is worse than Tom Price. We actually published a book on Tom Price called Out of the Ooze that detailed his life-long corrupt practices that he brought to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. You really had to search out to find someone worse than him, someone even more in the ooze, but Donald Trump did it with Alex Azar. This is a guy who exemplifies literally everything that’s wrong with Washington D.C. The last time he was in government, supposedly serving the public interest, what he was actually doing, he was deputy director of HHS, Health and Human Services, and in that position he was working with the Department of Justice on an investigation into illegal practices by Eli Lilly. What he saw was an opportunity, an opportunity for him to go sell his services to Eli Lilly to kind of get them out of this, to manage their crisis communications and to negotiate the admission of wrongdoing and record-setting fine, the settlement in that case, $1.4 billion out of Eli Lilly for illegally pushing a drug for things that it was not approved for. That seems like a lot of money. That seems like, “Wow, they felt justice,” but when you know that they made $30 billion off of doing that, you see that it was absolutely nothing. It wasn’t even a slap on the wrist. It was a green light, a go ahead to continue doing this because if you can make $29 billion, that’s a business practice that someone who doesn’t have a moral compass is going to pursue. Now Alex Azar finds his niche in this company, and he rises up the ranks till he is running the U.S. programs of Eli Lilly. In that position he actually oversaw the increase in the price of insulin, a drug that’s used to treat diabetes. With type one diabetics it’s literally a shot a day of insulin, or a person can die. The complications from diabetes are incredibly costly to the public health and to private health. You have coma, amputation, blindness. What we need to prevent all that is insulin, a drug that’s almost 100 years old. The only thing stopping universal access to this drug, to insulin, is the greed, the greed of people like Alex Azar and Eli Lilly and these companies, these three drug companies that act in a cartel to raise the price of insulin year after year after year. Now, he sees another opportunity. He’s going to go back inside government to rack up more information, more networking, more deals that he’s going to cut that are going to empower the corporations to profit off of our broken healthcare system so that he can exit again in the future back into the private sector and make millions and millions and millions more. This is a guy who exemplifies everything wrong in D.C. GREGORY WILPERT: That was actually going to be my next question about this experience that he had when he raised the insulin prices from, I believe it was $2,600 to $9,000 a dosage or a package, I’m not sure exactly which. This is affecting, like you said, 30 million people. How is it possible, though, that a price for such an important medication could go up so dramatically? Is there no competition? You mentioned there’s two other companies that act in a cartel. Tell us a little bit more about how this is working, and to what the government could be doing about it. ALEX LAWSON: The government could be doing its job, that’s right now the government, the DOJ. What’s going on is you have three drug corporations that produce insulin. Now, in an actual working marketplace the price of insulin, which, again, is almost 100 years old, would be flat or it would be falling. That’s how the market and competition works, unless these three companies are working together to fix the price of insulin so that they can reach into people’s pockets and steal their money, a tax on people who need insulin. That’s what’s going on. There’s a graph that shows the price of Eli Lilly, the drug they make, the insulin that they make, and then the main competitor, which is the same drug. Instead of acting in competition, you see this increase in price that’s mirror image. Every single year a step up. They’re the exact same so much so that you can’t even distinguish the two lines on the graph. That is illegal. Companies are not allowed to do that, so if the government was just doing their job right now they would prevent this from happening. In fact, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Elijah Cummings wrote to the federal government last year and requested and investigation into this. Five states are investigating this. There’s a civil class action against this illegal price fixing, and they were found guilty of this in Mexico and fined for doing this. This is what Alex Azar was running. He was running a cartel that was robbing people by raising the prices up and up and up. GREGORY WILPERT: If Alex Azar were to get the nomination or were confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary what role would he play in these cases that you mentioned, for example in the class action suit and the five state investigations? What’s the role of the Department of Health and Human Services in this? ALEX LAWSON: One of the things that he could do almost immediately is actually just roll back or dial back the enforcement and investigation into all of these bad practices by pharmaceutical corporations, by big hospital, by actors along all throughout the healthcare system. He’s basically pretty blunt that that is what he would do. When he says that he wants to leave it to the private market, he’s going to leave it to the market to decide. He’s going to make sure that he finds this so called balance that he talks about between the corporate interest and the public health or private health, a person’s health. What he’s talking about is allowing corporations to profit off of sickness, off of death, off of our broken healthcare system. There is no balance there. That’s what he wants to do, is allow corporations to profit even more than they do now. I know the question is about what can he do at HHS. The answer is he can do so many things as the secretary of HHS, it’s impossible to list them. It is such a powerful position. He can really affect. He can be disastrous at so many points along the healthcare system, whether it’s with Medicaid, with the Affordable Care Act, with Medicare, all along the system he can really hurt people. Let me be really clear about this, in the case of insulin, but in the case of so many things, but in the case of insulin, it’s life or death. People died, people died because they could not afford their insulin, and that is because Alex Azar was greedy. It’s that simple. People died because of his greed. He should be under criminal investigation, not being the secretary of Health and Human Services. GREGORY WILPERT: You mentioned also a role that the HHS departments plays in Medicare and in Obamacare. Azar has said that he would like to impose Medicare block grants and that he favors them and that he’s opposed to Obamacare. What could he do, in other words, as secretary to dismantle Obamacare? What is the danger there? ALEX LAWSON: Again, and I’m not trying to not answer, it’s just there’s so many things he can do. The block granting is of Medicaid, that’s what he talks about. It’s an overt goal of his. What he’s saying when he says that, just like when Paul Ryan says that, just like when all the Republicans say that, what they’re talking about is destroying Medicaid. They want to destroy Medicaid. Medicaid is the largest provider of long-term care in the United States. The average nursing home cost around $90,000 a year in the United States. That is unaffordable to families, and they’re talking about getting rid of the only program that exists for long-term care. What he would do, there’s two ways of destroying the program. They came after it with a frontal assault with Trumpcare, but what Azar is doing is he is inside. He’s going to be making small to medium, sometimes pretty large changes that just break the system. When you don’t have someone operating to make Medicaid work, then it is not going to work. It is a very complex system that serves tens of millions of Americans, children. It is such a huge program, and what he’s going to try to do is just smash it to little smithereens so that people don’t have any choice but to go and buy these low-quality insurance products, which they’re also trying to rush through and allow insurance corporations to market non-real insurance policies. This is all part of a strategy to just break our system up because it’s not overstating it, the profits that people like Azar see is in things not working. That’s why they hate Medicare. That’s why they hate Medicaid. That’s why they hate Social Security because these are systems that work. They don’t make Wall Street billions of dollars, and people like Azar can’t stand that, so he’s going to do everything in his power to destroy these systems. I don’t think that that’s overstating it at all. Tom Price, you saw what he started to do, what he was trying to do. Azar is going to pick up right where Tom Price left off, and the only difference between the two is that I think Azar is a bit more of a smooth operator. He’s a big more slimy. He’s a bit more polished when it comes to just lying about what he’s doing. I don’t think he’s going to be stupid enough to be flying around on private jets jetting around the country just because he can like Tom Price did. GREGORY WILPERT: Finally, how do you see the chances of Azar’s nomination being confirmed. What do you think would have to happen for it to be stopped? ALEX LAWSON: A few Republicans would have to find moral compasses, but I just don’t see that happening. They sold their compasses a long time ago. There is a possibility in finance that somebody like Lamar Alexander could see the light and say, “We’re not going to confirm this guy.” It’s very unlikely that’s going to happen. If you remember the extraordinary lengths that they went to to put Tom Price into the position, as the secretary of HHS. It was unprecedented what the Republicans in the Senate did to get that confirmation done. I don’t see them doing any less than that because this is an ideologically driven quest to destroy any vestige of a functioning healthcare system that we have so that people are just left desperate. When they’re desperate, what is a person willing to pay when their or their child’s life is on the line? The answer is everything up to their last penny, and then their last penny, and then to go into debt, and then to go into bankruptcy. That is what people like Alex Azar see the system as. It’s a way of profiting. It’s a way of being a leech, of being a parasite and sucking money out of people. They don’t want a healthcare system. They want a system, a non-healthcare system because that’s where the money is. I don’t want to be a pessimist here. I want everyone to call in, and I want them to hammer their senators with phone calls and say, “Do not confirm this guy.” He shouldn’t even be getting a hearing, but do not confirm him. But I also have every expectation that the Republicans will again go to whatever lengths they need to get this guy into HHS so he can begin or carry on the process of destroying our healthcare system. GREGORY WILPERT: Okay, well, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there for now. We were joined by Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. Thanks, again, Alex for being on The Real News today. Thank you for watching the Real News. If you like our news and analysis please don’t forget to support us by donating to the Real News this holiday season.

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Alex Lawson

Alex Lawson is the executive director of Social Security Works, an organization that fights to expand Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and to lower prescription drug prices.