Press Release

Nurses Blast Nomination of Top Pharma Exec as HHS Secretary

Sanders calls for lower drug prices
Sen. Sanders calls for lowering drug prices during California's Prop 61 campaign

National Nurses United today condemned the nomination of former Eli Lilly executive Alex Azar to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Azar is a former president of Lilly USA, the biggest affiliate of the pharmaceutical giant, which is one of the 15 largest pharmaceutical corporations in the world recording nearly $17 billion in sales and $1.45 billion in profits through the first three quarters of this year alone.

Selecting Azar to the post that oversees health policy for the Trump Administration “is a clear reminder, if we needed it, that President Trump, who during his campaign said the drug giants were ‘getting away with murder,’ cares more about extending the disgraceful behavior of the pharmaceutical industry than in protecting the patients who are victimized by the predatory practices of the drug companies,” said NNU Co-President Deborah Burger, RN.

“Choosing a top pharma executive to promote lower prices is like employing a lion to herd your sheep or cattle,” Burger said.

While the pharmaceutical industry is “littered with price gougers that have abused the public interest,” said Burger, Eli Lilly has a particularly checkered record.

An SEC complaint in 2012 charged Lilly affiliates with a record of global bribes to government officials in Russia, China, Brazil, and Poland to purchase and or promote Lilly drugs. Lilly ultimately agreed to pay $29 million to settle the charges and agreed to a settlement permanently enjoining the company from violating anti-bribery rules of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

In Russia, Lilly’s subsidiary, the complaint alleged, paid millions of dollars to offshore entities, owned by a member of Russia’s parliament, for “marketing services” to induce government bodies and pharmaceutical distributors to purchase Lilly drugs. Lilly apparently continued the practices for years.

Lilly’s China subsidiary, the complaint asserted, falsified expense reports for improper gifts and cash payments to government-employed physicians.

Lilly paid an even a bigger penalty, $1.4 billion, in 2009, including a criminal fine of $515 million, the largest ever in a healthcare case at the time, for promoting its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. According to the case, Lilly unlawfully sought to convince physicians to prescribe Zyprexa for dementia, psychosis associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and behavioral symptoms including agitation, aggression and hostility.

Azar joined Lilly from 2007 as a senior vice president of corporate affairs, after working in the HHS under President George W. Bush, and was with the company through January, 2017, where he was also a member of the company’s policy and strategy committee and its operations committee.

During the time that Azar worked at Lilly USA, the company raised the price of their insulin brand, Humalog, by more than 300 percent over the course of seven years. Millions of people with diabetes have been forced to ration this lifesaving medication, because they can’t afford the price hikes, notes NNU.

In an unprecedented case in 2013, Eli Lilly filed an investor-state-dispute-settlement (ISDS) claim against the government of Canada, after Canadian courts refused to issue new therapeutic use patents for two drugs made by Eli Lilly, after finding that there as not enough evidence of new therapeutic uses to justify a new patent. In its ISDS claim, Eli Lilly sought $500 million (Canadian dollars) as reimbursement from the Canadian government, to recover lost profits. Although the drug company lost the case in a landmark ruling in March of 2017, the case is further proof that Eli Lilly has focused immense attention and resources into bullying governments across the world to extend their monopolies and increase their profit margins.

As an executive of Lilly USA, “Azar should be asked to account by the Senate for unethical price gouging and other questionable policies pursued by Eli Lilly, that led multiple efforts to increase profits, regardless of the impacts on patients,” Burger said.

Azar also fits the Trump Administration profile of attacking public healthcare programs such as support for dismantling Medicaid by converting it to a block grant program subject to sweeping cuts, as well as rolling back the Affordable Care Act.

“At a time when drug prices continue to be an enormous public health crisis, forcing tens of millions to delay or skip entirely needed medications due to the outrageous prices charged for critical medications, placing a top pharma executive as HHS Secretary is a clear signal of an Administration dedicated to reinforcing the worst abuses of an out of control industry,” Burger said.

“His support for wholesale cuts to Medicaid and rolling back the gains made under the ACA are equally an alarming signal that our existing healthcare troubles will continue to grow. This is a disturbing appointment that puts all Americans at risk,” Burger said.