Senate Votes to Approve Azar as HHS Secretary

In a 55 to 43 vote, Alex Azar will replace Tom Price to lead Health and Human Services.

The Senate has voted 55 to 43 to confirm Alex M. Azar II as Secretary of Health and Human Services. This came as welcome news to HME advocates, who were hoping for new HHS leadership that would work in a more cooperative fashion with the industry.

“AAHomecare and the home medical equipment (HME) community are gratified to see Alex Azar confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS),” said Tom Ryan, president and CEO of the American Association for Homecare (AAHomecare). “His combination of previous high-level experience at HHS and background as an effective and accomplished health care executive makes him uniquely qualified to help resolve significant challenges facing our nation’s healthcare delivery system.”

During the Bush administration, Azar served as General Counsel for HHS and Deputy Secretary of HHS. He then joined pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly and Company where he eventually became the company’s president of its U.S. division.

“We look forward to any opportunity to discuss the state of home medical equipment, complex rehab and O&P industries and the crucial role they play in health care with Mr. Azar,” said John Gallagher, vice president of government relations for VGM & Associates. “The federal government has several opportunities to make meaningful reform to strengthen the environment of small businesses and increase patient accessibility to effective equipment and supplies that saves money for federal and state governments alike.”

Earlier this month, Azar confirmed that he would address key HME industry-related issues during a Jan. 9 hearing with the Senate Finance Committee. Specifically, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) queried Azar on two items:

  • The CURES Act requirement for HHS to study the impact of competitive bidding on the total population of HME providers and patient access to HME over the course of 2016.
  • The Interim Final Rule (IFR) on bid expansion that has been sitting at the Office of Management and Budget since August. The IFR would resume the 50/50, blended fee schedule for rural and non-bid areas that was in effect during the phase-in of national bid expansion during Jan. 1, 2016 to June 30, 2016, and apply it to claims submitted between Aug. 1, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2018. It would also exclude home infusion drugs used with HME from competitive bidding.

“HHS was supposed to have issued a report to Congress — and this came per the 21st Century CURES Act — on beneficiary access by Jan. 12, 2017,” Thune noted. “I’m not aware of this report having been completed, so I’d request that once confirmed you would work to have that report completed quickly.

“Additionally, if confirmed, I would ask will you commit to working with the office of management and budget to quickly approve the interim final rule to provide relief for rural providers that has been pending — the rule that is — since October 2017,” he asked.

Azar’s answer was positive, which should give HME stakeholders some grounds for optimism.

“Yes, Senator, I’d be happy to work on those issues,” Azar replied.

While Azar’s concise response didn’t shed much light on his perspective regarding those issues, it did indicate he would carry on the more collegial relationship with the HME industry that was initiated by his predecessor, former HHS Secretary Tom Price. Price was a longtime industry ally in Congress as the Representative for Georgia’s 6th District from 2005 to 2017. However, Price was forced to resign his HHS post after it was revealed he routinely used expensive charter flights for government travel. President Trump then nominated Azar in November.

About the Author

David Kopf is the Editor of HME Business.

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