In an article for the Associated Press, two former senators defended President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Health and Human Services Department, Alex Azar. But the AP neglected to mention that the pair are affiliated with a Washington think tank that receives money from Azar’s recent employer, drug giant Eli Lilly.
On Wednesday morning, AP turned to two former senators to offer a defense of Azar, who has come under fire for his close ties to the pharmaceutical industry, which the HHS regulates. “While there may be disagreements on policy, I do think he’s willing to hear people out,” said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, in the AP article. Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist offered a similar take: “Will he carry pharma’s water? I don’t think so, based on my interactions with him,” he said.
The Associated Press neglected to mention that the former senators praising Azar are affiliated with a Washington think tank that receives money from Azar’s recent employer, drug giant Eli Lilly.
AP noted that both former senators have positions at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. But the esteemed wire service omitted that the Bipartisan Policy Center is funded by a variety of health care industry interests, including Eli Lilly.
“The funding behind the Bipartisan Policy Center was not deemed particularly relevant for this story in part because Daschle and Frist were questioned about their personal views of Azar, whom they had known a long time, and because of their standing as former Senate leaders,” said the AP’s director of media relations Lauren Easton in response to a request for comment.
The think tank’s 2016-2017 annual report lists Eli Lilly as a donor who has given more than $1,000. Among the several health industry donors listed are the drug company Pfizer, health care giant Kaiser Permanente, and other insurers. Eli Lilly is also named as a Bipartisan Policy Center donor in the 2015-2016 and 2014 annual reports. The Bipartisan Policy Center did not respond to a request for comment.
The article also quoted some Azar critics — Democratic senators who are concerned he’s too close to industry — as well as a source directly from the health care industry. Dan Mendelson, who is head of the consulting firm Avalere Health and whose employment was disclosed, praised Azar. “He has policy wonk credentials,” Mendelson said. “I can’t think of a better person to tackle the opioids crisis, for example, because he understands all the different levers.”
In January, Azar resigned from his post as head of Eli Lilly. Many public health advocates have expressed concern that making Azar head of the HHS is like putting the proverbial fox in charge of the hen house: The agency that regulates drugs, the Food and Drug Administration, falls under the department’s purview. “Trump is ensuring that Big Pharma’s coup d’etat in the health care sphere will be virtually complete,” wrote Alan Zibel on the blog of Public Citizen, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting against corporate interests in Washington.