NWHN’s Take on Alex Azar: An Interview with Cindy Pearson

Over the last year, the Trump Administration has repeatedly appointed unqualified individuals to key public health posts. Alex Azar, Trump's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is part of this same trend. Fresh from Eli Lilly, Azar has spent the past 10 years in Big Pharma. We sat down with National Women's Health Network's Executive Director, Cindy Pearson, to discuss the nomination of Alex Azar.

Question: What is the NWHN’s reaction to yet another appointee with limited public health experience being chosen for a key public health position, this time the head of HHS?

Answer:  The HHS secretary has a tremendous amount of power, and his or her leadership can greatly affect women. For example, if the person in charge doesn’t support the Affordable Care Act (ACA), they can cut funding for open enrollment, sabotage the law by making the rules unworkable, even lie about the law's positive impact. If they don't value medically accurate health care, they can take funds away from scientifically sound programs like contraceptive access and direct them towards ideologically driven but medically flawed pet projects like abstinence-only education. This is exactly what we saw happening with Trump's previous HHS secretary, Tom Price.

Right away we can emphatically say Mr. Azar is unqualified to lead HHS because he has limited public health experience and no health academic training. Ultimately, the secretary has a lot of responsibilities that touch EVERYONE. This is too important a job to give someone whose knowledge is primarily limited to just one aspect of health care.

Question:  Trump surrogates are saying that Azar is a qualified nominee because “he understands health care, understands the regulatory process, and is skilled in management.” What does the NWHN say in response to these claims? 

Answer: Knowing how the pharmaceutical industry develops drugs and manages a company may be the sign of a good business person, but it is NOT a sign of a person who understands how to make good decisions about public health and invest in what people need.

Question: Azar served on the board of Eli Lilly USA from 2012-2017. How does the NWHN feel about someone with pharma industry ties leading the HHS?                                             

Answer: During his time in the Bush Administration, Azar supervised the part of the government investigating Eli Lilly for criminal activity. The company was illegally marketing their psychiatric drug to nursing homes and assisted living facilities for uses that the FDA had never approved. Then, in 2007, he jumped ship to go work for them. Eli Lilly eventually pleaded guilty to wrongdoing but their fine was just a tiny fraction of the profits they'd made. Azar is a perfect case study in what happens when the people in charge of protecting public health care more about industry profits.

Furthermore, public health is about investing in the programs and services that support the health of the program at large. Drugs are only small a part of that, and no part of Mr. Azar's resume qualifies him to manage the scope of a department as big and far-reaching as HHS.

Question: How does the NWHN feel about Congress confirming unqualified people who are nominated?

Answer: Congress needs to grow a spine and stand up to the president. We want them to do what is right and not simply what the president asks them to do.  In this case, Congress should say NO and refuse to confirm Azar as HHS secretary.

Question: How does the NWHN plan to respond if the Senate approves Azar's nomination?

Answer: Make no mistake, we will be on him like white on rice. We will be shining a light and expose what they are doing. We will keep them from feeling like they it’s smooth sailing and they can do whatever they want. The Trump Administration is ultimately responsible to the people and we want to keep them accountable. 

Evita Almassi, MSW, served as the Communications and Digital Marketing Manager for the NWHN. Her 10+ years in nonprofit communications – especially with social media advocacy campaigns – enabled the NWHN to reach and empower more women in their health education and advocacy journeys.

Read more from Evita Almassi.