The recent confirmation of Alex Azar LAW ’91 as secretary of health and human services has left local organizations and health policy professionals hopeful but uncertain about the future of health care in Connecticut.
Before President Donald Trump nominated him to the federal post on Nov. 13, Azar served as an executive at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. Azar was confirmed with a 55–43 vote on Jan. 24, securing the required 51 votes. But both Connecticut senators, Chris Murphy, D-CT, and Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, voted against Azar’s confirmation, with Murphy saying he voted against Azar because of the former pharmaceutical executive’s views on drug pricing and regulation.
Still, Murphy spoke optimistically about the new secretary at an event at Planned Parenthood last week.
“The new HHS secretary, who I voted against, is much better than Tom Price,” Murphy said. “My hope is that the new secretary of HHS, Alex Azar, is not going to be as ideological as his predecessor. So for the time being, I’m going to have high hopes that Secretary Azar is going to depoliticize HHS once he gets there.”
Local and state health care leaders echoed Murphy’s remarks, but with more hesitation. Patricia Baker, president and CEO of the Connecticut Health Foundation, told the News that it is difficult, at the moment, to say where Azar’s tenure will take health care. Baker cited Murphy’s comment and said the future depends primarily on how closely Azar will follow the national agenda set by the Trump administration.
Katherine Kraschel, the executive director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School, said the Trump administration seems to embrace “barriers” to health care like the work requirement.
“I imagine [that] probably wouldn’t stop with the new secretary,” Kraschel, who also previously served as associate counsel for Yale New Haven Health, said.
At the Planned Parenthood event last week, Amanda Skinner, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, told reporters that the onus falls on Azar to influence other appointees in the Health and Human Services Department, in order to protect birth control rights in Connecticut and across the country. Skinner called the senator’s comments “helpful” but warned that, if the secretary does not work to influence other appointees within the department who are opposed to abortion, then “we are still at risk.”
Baker and Skinner found the possibility of losing funds for state medical programs such as Medicaid funding particularly alarming. The current state deficit makes the possibility of losing Medicaid funding all the more worrying, Baker said.
“You’re talking about a state facing deficits,” she said. “Losing another billion dollars would be devastating.”
The Connecticut health care system is highly dependent on federal funding for its operation, according to Abbe Gluck, a law professor at Yale Law School and a faculty director of the Solomon Center.
“Federal money pays the lion’s share of Medicaid — our low-income insurance program that we in Connecticut know as ‘Husky Health,’” Gluck said in an email to the News.
She said the program funds critical health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act that make insurance cheaper for those who buy on the private market and fund scientific research.
Other health policy professionals, while still concerned, placed more confidence in the state government and Congress as a bulwark against negative changes.
Kraschel said she doubted the current Connecticut government would take advantage of the greater latitude afforded by the Trump administration and discriminate in the distribution of Title X funds.
Ellen Andrews, director of the Connecticut Health Policy Project and a member of the Malloy administration’s health care cabinet, said not much in Connecticut’s health care system has changed since Trump took office.
She said she is acutely concerned about future changes, particularly because the individual mandate will end next year and because revisions to Medicaid seem a likely objective for the Trump administration, she said. The greatest cause of concern would be funding cuts and drug price increases, she said, given the state’s budget deficit, which is projected to reach over $200 million this year.
Andrews said she was confident that birth control services would remain accessible in Connecticut, though she acknowledged that such services are “under threat.”
The Connecticut Hospital Association declined to comment for this story, saying that “we just don’t have enough information at this point to talk about his impact on the Connecticut health care system. It is a bit of an unknown.” A representative from Yale New Haven Hospital declined to comment, stating there is not “much to say at this point.”
Azar attended Dartmouth College before graduating from the Law School.
Keshav Raghavan | email@example.com