Yesterday, the Senate confirmed former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar to lead the Department of Health and Human Services by a vote of 55 to 43. (The spot was vacant after HHS secretary Tom Price resigned amid a private jet scandal.) Azar faced scrutiny during his Senate confirmation hearings over his record of raising drug prices while he was a top executive at Eli Lily, which seemed in conflict with the Trump administration's goal of lowering drug prices and Azar's stated priorities for HHS.
Senators were also keen to learn Azar's positions on healthcare access and reproductive health given the White House's attacks on the Affordable Care Act, birth control, and abortion, including barring undocumented teens from receiving abortions. His responses to these questions got some coverage but not nearly as much as his record on drug pricing did.
Talking Points Memo obtained Azar's written responses to questions from Senators that suggest he supports the discriminatory, anti-choice views of the Trump administration. Washington Senator Patty Murray asked Azar to comment on the HHS draft strategic plan that endorsed fetal personhood, which she said was an “unconstitutional definition of persons as beginning at conception, which has no basis in science.” The plan, released in October, said part of HHS' mission was “serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.” Doctors and reproductive rights advocates sounded the alarm that this language could lead to attacks on abortion, certain types of contraception, and IVF.
Azar's response to Murray basically parroted the controversial HHS stance: “The mission of HHS is to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans, and this includes the unborn,” he wrote.
Murray also asked Azar to respond to the Trump administration's now-blocked rule that allowed for-profit companies to exclude birth control from their health insurance plans over religious or moral objections. Again, two federal judges have blocked this rule for being improperly implemented and harmful. Azar replied: “It is critical that we balance individuals’ access to healthcare with the protection of conscience of those with contrary moral or religious beliefs.”
Religious freedom has been a recent focus of HHS, with the Trump administration's move last week to establish the “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” of the Office of Civil Rights. The division would protect healthcare workers who refuse to provide services based on religious objections–which could include denying birth control or abortion care or treating LGBTQ patients.
In a statement delivered before the confirmation vote, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said he urged a no vote for several reasons, not the least of which being that Azar seems to support the administration's “retrograde” agenda:
"Health care is a right in America, but discrimination is not. The way Mr. Azar describes the position he’s nominated to fill, it sounds like he understands that. He said in his confirmation hearing, 'if I get this job, my job is to enhance and protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans.' But Mr. Azar has not committed to reversing these anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ, discriminatory policies as secretary."
The Trump administration has already let states exclude abortion providers from family planning funding doled out by HHS, and the agency is rumored to freeze out family planning clinics that also provide abortions at the federal level. Now Azar is leading that agency.
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