Dr. Anthony Tersigni: Alex Azar would serve the country well as the next HHS secretary

The mission of HHS is to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans. The department supports critical care for some of our most vulnerable citizens — those who are frail, addicted and poor. The selection of the right person to lead this crucial department is one of the president's most important decisions, and in selecting Alex Azar, the president has made an excellent choice. Mr. Azar has the temperament, commitment, experience and, most importantly, the character to serve us well as the nation's next HHS secretary.

There have been questions raised about Mr. Azar's service in the pharmaceutical industry. As the leader of Ascension, the largest nonprofit healthcare system in the nation, I understand those concerns. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical costs are Ascension's fastest growing supply expense. In 2016, drug spending at Ascension increased more than 11 percent, well above the general inflation rate. We also face inexplicable price spikes for certain drugs. For instance, in 2016, the cost of brand name adrenaline at Ascension increased by 475 percent.

The solution to skyrocketing drug prices, however, is not to oppose Mr. Azar's nomination. Instead, Congress should engage him on the issue of rising drug prices and take advantage of the expertise he developed at Eli Lilly to increase market pressure on drug prices while not squelching the value that truly innovative therapies provide patients.

In his opening statement to the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Mr. Azar addressed the elephant in the room directly. He outlined four critical priorities, the first of which is drug prices. His proactive identification of this issue will encourage Congress and the healthcare industry to readily hold him accountable on drug pricing, which we are prepared to do.

I have known Alex Azar for more than 10 years. We served together as members of the Healthcare Leadership Council. HLC is a coalition of chief executives from all disciplines within American healthcare that work together on health policy.

I am confident Mr. Azar will be open to engaging in a meaningful debate about how to better enable market forces to have an impact on pharmaceutical prices. I expect that his testimony to date has been sincere and that he will be open to dialogue around speeding up generic competition and putting an end to illegitimate efforts by pharmaceutical companies to limit generic companies' entrance into the market. I also very much hope that he will not authorize anything that undermines the 340B drug pricing program, which requires pharmaceutical companies to offer discounts to those hospitals serving a disproportionate number of poor and vulnerable patients.

With his fertile mind and open spirit, I am sure Mr. Azar will relish the discussion on this and other vital health policy issues, like the future of Medicaid and the protection of the healthcare safety net. His intellect is second to none and is complemented by a drive and dedication to improving the health of all Americans. He has enormous experience working at HHS, which reflects his belief in the value of public service. He attained some of the highest achievements of service at HHS — serving as general counsel and deputy secretary — and is held in high regard by those who worked with him in those roles.

While Mr. Azar and I may not agree on every public policy issue, he satisfies admirably the test that should be applied to any cabinet nominee: His views are within the broad mainstream of policy thought and he is committed to public service, with sufficient experience, a strong intellect and strength of character. Mr. Azar easily passes this test and should be confirmed by the Senate. I am confident that senators will largely agree, and I look forward to working with him upon his confirmation.

Anthony R. Tersigni, EdD, FACHE, is president and CEO of St. Louis-based Ascension, the nation's largest nonprofit health system.

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