Senate Finance Committee set to hear from HHS nominee; health committee to focus on opioid crisis
More than six weeks after his nomination, HHS Secretary-designate Alex Azar will receive his official confirmation hearing with the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday morning.
The Jan. 9 hearing follows his Nov. 29 courtesy hearing with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It falls to the Finance Committee, however, to hold the actual vote to advance Azar's nomination to the Senate floor.
President Donald Trump also had to renominate Azar because the original nomination expired at the end of 2017. In the flurry of end-of-year business that included passage of the GOP's tax overhaul and negotiations on a short-term spending bill, the Finance Committee punted its proceedings to the new year.
Azar's most recent post as a Big Pharma executive—he led the U.S. branch of Eli Lilly & Co—drove the health committee's questions on how he would manage spiking drug prices. His common refrain at that time? More competition through a generics push.
The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over Medicaid and Medicare spending. With Medicaid once again the rumored object of forthcoming GOP reform efforts, expect Democrats to try to pin Azar down on where he stands on the idea of Medicaid block grants. Azar dodged similar questions from the health committee.
This week is also the first week both houses of Congress are back, and leaders only have until Jan. 19 to hammer out another spending deal that industry leaders hope will include resolutions to all the outstanding business on funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicare extenders. A disaster relief package and an appropriation for states managing the opioid epidemic also await attention.
Key to all these issues is how lawmakers address spending caps. Conservatives want to lift caps for defense funding, but not domestic programs. These negotiations can be pushed down the line. So far, lawmakers appear nowhere close to a deal.
Also on Jan. 9, the Senate HELP Committee will hold a hearing on the opioid epidemic. It's the third in a series launched by committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
Alexander and the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, have asked every governor and state insurance commissioner how they want the federal government to help them with the crisis that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is causing a plunge in U.S. life expectancy.
As pleas from the states grow, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are getting more vocal about securing funds. Sen. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) is seeking $45 billion, although Congress isn't likely to address this appropriation any time soon.
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