The Canadian research team that developed insulin as a breakthrough treatment for diabetes back in 1923 sold the patent for just $3, essentially giving its intellectual property away for the greater good.
Nowadays, the companies that manufacture this crucial medicine raise the price on a regular basis in order to maximize profits. One of those companies is Eli Lilly and Co., where Alex Azar II, the man that President Trump has selected to run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently worked as a top executive.
During Azar's eight-year tenure as president and vice president of Eli Lilly's operations in the United States, the pharmaceutical giant raised the price of Humalog, a fast-acting form of insulin, from $2,657 per year to $9,172. That's a 345 percent price increase for a drug that millions of patients depend on, according to Peter Maybarduk, the director of the Access to Medicines Program at the watchdog group Public Citizen.
President Trump announced on Monday that he is nominating Azar to replace a disgraced Tom Price as health secretary:
Happy to announce, I am nominating Alex Azar to be the next HHS Secretary. He will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 13, 2017
"As Tweeter-in-Chief, Trump tells us Azar will be a 'star' who will lower prescription prices," Maybarduk said in a statement. "Maybe he should have asked the six million diabetic Americans whose insulin prices have more than tripled under Azar's watch at Eli Lilly."
Azar served as a general counsel and deputy secretary of HHS during the Bush administration and later entered the private sector, where he became a leading executive at Eli Lilly. He is a staunch conservative who has criticized the Affordable Care Act and reportedly supports converting federal Medicaid funding into block grants, a longstanding Republican goal that critics say could limit access to health care for low-income people.
Shortly after Azar left the company in January amid a downsizing of its US operations, Eli Lilly hiked the price of Humalog and another insulin product by nearly 8 percent, according to reports. The hikes came despite public outcry over insulin prices, including a class action lawsuit filed against Lilly and other manufacturers on behalf of diabetes patients that accuses the companies of price fixing and gouging.
Elizabeth Rowley, founding director of the diabetes advocacy group T1 International who has lived with diabetes for 25 years, said a 2016 survey by her organization found that the average patient in the US spends $571 a month to treat their diabetes.
"Even with insurance, many Americans are spending around half their income on insulin and other supplies they need to stay alive," Rowley said in a statement. "This has to stop."
Now, the high cost of pharmaceuticals is a hot topic in Washington, where politicians are quick to ride the coattails of consumer outrage despite doing little about the problem. Trump himself has said that Big Pharma is "getting away with murder" and has attacked drug companies on Twitter over rising prescription prices.
Trump has repeatedly promised to sign an executive order to address high drug prices. However, critics say provisions in a draft order released earlier this year would benefit the industry by easing regulations while doing nothing to lower prices for consumers.
Azar would be the top government regulator of an industry that he just recently left.
If the Senate confirms Azar as health secretary, the former pharmaceutical executive would be charged with rolling out Trump's drug-pricing policies: He would be the top government regulator of an industry that he just recently left.
"Drug corporations have undue influence over health policy in the US, and they use it to make money on the backs of patients and taxpayers," said Ben Wakana, the executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs, in a statement. "To have a former drug company executive nominated as HHS secretary adds to our concern that this administration may continue to disappoint through its lack of action on skyrocketing drug prices."
As health secretary, Azar would also oversee the Trump administration's efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act through regulations and executive action.
In the world according to Trump, what's best for business is also what's best for everyone else. Many of his high-profile picks to run various federal agencies have worked closely with the industries they will now be regulating, as Senate Democrats have pointed out in one committee hearing after another. However, without a majority, Democrats have so far been unable to block Trump's nominees.
In the world according to Trump, what's best for business is also what's best for everyone else.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), the leading Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold the hearing on Azar's nomination, said on Monday that he would "closely scrutinize" Azar's record and ask for his commitment to bring down prescription drug costs and "faithfully" implement the Affordable Care Act. Wyden also attacked Trump's track record on health care, which he called "abysmal."
"At every turn, the president has broken his promises to American families to lower health care costs, expand access and bring down the high price of prescription drugs," Wyden said in a statement. "Trump's previous leader at HHS, Tom Price, abused the public trust on multiple occasions, led efforts to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, and enabled congressional Republicans' disastrous attempts to pass Trumpcare."
Wakana said some advocates are willing to give Trump's latest nominee a chance.
"Mr. Azar is well-qualified and has the chance to stand up for patients because he knows exactly how our drug pricing system is broken," Wakana said. "If he wants to take meaningful action to lower drug prices, we want to help him."
Others disagree. Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said that Azar's own public statements show that he is opposed to measures that would limit profiteering and improper marketing in the pharmaceutical industry while favoring weaker safety approval standards.
"Americans understand, passionately, that price gouging leads to rationing of care. It is unethical and must end. Even President Trump says so," Weissman said. "But it is highly unlikely that a pharmaceutical company executive who has made passionate arguments against price restraints is going to advance real reform. Much more likely is that he serves as the instrument by which Big Pharma aims to defend its monopolies and unaffordable prices."
Corrections: This article incorrectly stated that President Trump announced Alex Azar's nomination on Wednesday. Trump tweeted the announcement on Monday, November 13. This article also identified Elizabeth Rowley as a member of Patients for Affordable Drugs. Rowley is the founding director of T1 International.