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The would-be next secretary of health and human services worked at Eli Lilly

Alex Azar faced questions at his confirmation hearing about rising drug prices

Washington CNN  — 

The Senate confirmed Alex Azar on Wednesday as the next Department of Health and Human Services secretary.

The final vote in the Senate was 55-43.

A top executive with Eli Lilly for nearly nine years, Azar will replace Tom Price, who resigned last fall amid a scandal over his use of private planes while leading the department.

Azar served as general counsel and deputy secretary of the agency under former President George W. Bush. He then joined Eli Lilly, becoming president of Lilly USA in 2012. As part of his role there, Azar was on the board of directors of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group. He left Lilly USA and BIO in January and now runs a consulting firm.

During his nomination hearings before the Senate Finance and Health committees, he drew a barrage of criticism from Democrats, especially liberals, who argued that drug prices rose under his watch at Eli Lilly and said he’s too closely tied to the industry he needs to oversee.

“I am alarmed he might not stand up to the pharmaceutical industry,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. “And I am alarmed he may not stand up to President Trump’s agenda driven by sabotage and ideology.”

Also, she said she was concerned that that Azar may not stand up for women and families based on his past statements and her discussions with him.

Azar will lead the department that oversees the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, a law that has faced constant criticism from congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump. The Republican tax overhaul that Trump signed into law last year repeals an Obamacare mandate that individuals have health insurance and the recent deal to reopen the government included some delays of Obamacare-related taxes and fees.

HHS has already taken several steps that are expected to limit participation in Obamacare exchanges in 2018, including slashing the open enrollment period in half and cutting advertising and support for it.

During a committee hearing in November, Azar told lawmakers he’d work on lowering the cost of prescription medicine.

“Drug prices are too high,” he said, noting his experience implementing the Medicare Part D drug plan under Bush. “The President has made this clear. So have I.”

He also said in the confirmation hearing, he wants to increase generic and branded competition, as well as stop drug companies from abusing the patent system to prevent generic competitors. Also, he would look into why Americans pay more for drugs than European or Japanese consumers.

When Trump unveiled his pick for health secretary on Twitter in November, he called Azar “a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!”

The President campaigned on lowering drug prices, but has yet to take any real steps on the issue.

Azar also wants to use Medicare’s power to shift how the nation pays for health care, from reimbursing for procedures to paying for outcomes. Finally, he said the nation must “tackle the scourge of the opioid epidemic that is destroying so many individuals, families and communities.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Azar on the Senate floor Wednesday, calling him “the right man for the job.”

“For all Americans he will work to expand access to high-quality, affordable health care options,” McConnell said. “His distinguished record – including prior HHS service as deputy secretary and private-sector work – shows he is the right man for the job.”

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.