Progressive Activists Ambush Joe Manchin Before Vote to Confirm Big Pharma Executive

The Democratic senator from West Virginia struggled to defend his decision.

Photo Credit: Social Security Works

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 55-43 to confirm Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the nation’s largest federal agency with a $1.1 trillion budget that includes purchase and delivery of medications for an array of federal health programs, including Medicare.  

Hours before, progressive activists from Social Security Works, Public Citizen, Credo Action, People’s Action, Other 98, and UNITE HERE delivered 300,000 petitions to three senators urging them to reject Azar’s nomination, primarily because he was a senior executive with Eli Lilly, which was known to price-gouge medications needed by vulnerable populations.

The petitions were delivered to the Capitol offices of Democratic senators Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp and Tom Carper.

Six Democrats—Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heitkamp of North Dakota, Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama—voted in favor of Azar's confirmation.

During the delivery, Social Security Works executive director Alex Lawson confronted Sen. Manchin on his support for Azar. He and other activists pressed Manchin, to no avail, about industry price-gouging on medications that treat opioid addiction.

As Social Security Work’s Facebook page noted, “Someone that was involved in the pharmaceutical industry that caused the opioid epidemic so that they could PROFIT can not be trusted to solve the problem. C'mon Senator Manchin we know you know better.”

A video of their exchange is below, followed by a transcript.

Alex Lawson: “There’s Sen. Manchin, right there, himself. Senator, can we deliver these petitions to vote no on Alex Azar this afternoon when he comes up?”

Sen. Manchin: “Oh, okay. Well, I’m going to vote for Alex because I’ve got a commitment to fight the opiate epidemic that’s killing my state.

Alex Lawson: “Alex Azar, when he was at Eli Lilly, worked in collusion with other pharmaceutical companies to skyrocket the price of insulin. We do not think he can be trusted.”

Sen. Manchin: “Was that on insulin?”

Alex Lawson: “On insulin, yeah.”

Sen. Manchin: “Any of that is bad. I can tell you, I’ve got a commitment. I’ve got to fight the war on drugs. I’m going to try to hold him accountable when I vote for him. And I can go after him in a much more credible way if he doesn’t change his ways.”

Steven Knievel, an advocate with Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines Program: “You know who else price-spiked opioids? Naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, that has been price spiked by drug companies. Buprenorphine, the opioid medication-assisted treatment, that has also been price spiked by drug companies. We cannot trust a pharmaceutical executive with a history of price-gouging medicines to be put in charge of our nation’s health agency."

Sen. Manchin: “Well, I thank you all. I really do. Thanks for coming."  

Alex Lawson: “And we stand with you in fighting the opioid epidemic.”

Sen. Manchin: “Oh, absolutely, you know what it’s doing to my state.”

Alex Lawson: “We just don’t think we can trust the pharmaceutical industry to do it.”

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).