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President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services lacks direct health privacy and security experience but if confirmed his prior HHS employment will help him navigate such issues, health-care privacy and security attorneys told Bloomberg Law.
Alex Azar, former president of Eli Lilly & Co. and former deputy secretary at HHS, will face questioning during his confirmation hearing Nov. 29 from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Although management of the Affordable Care Act and prescription drug costs will likely be the primary focus of the hearing, how Azar handles privacy and cybersecurity issues are important and will likely cross his desk early on if he is confirmed, attorneys said.
Azar’s previous HHS tenure may calm any concern over his perceived lack of privacy and security expertise.
As an attorney, including previously at HHS, Azar will be a quick study on privacy and security issues, Eric Fader, health-care and cybersecurity counsel at Day Pitney LLP in New York, told Bloomberg Law Nov. 28
Azar served as HHS general counsel and deputy secretary under President George W. Bush.
Azar would have been briefed on high level privacy and security policy, Adam Greene, health information privacy partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington, told Bloomberg Law Nov. 28. He would have “approved privacy and security matters, along with virtually all other areas of policy” at HHS, Greene said.
Azar can also rely on existing HHS officials to help handle privacy and security related issues, Greene, a former attorney in the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) during part of Azar’s tenure at the agency, said.
Representatives for Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s email requests for comment.
There have been many high-level changes at HHS since Trump took office. Earlier this year, former HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned from his role. Deven McGraw, former deputy director for health information privacy for the OCR and former acting chief privacy officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), left her post in October.
If Azar takes over the department, he would need to address a lag in health privacy enforcement, specifically related to health data breach settlements, attorneys said.
However, McGraw recently told Bloomberg Law that health privacy enforcement will be ramping up soon under new OCR Director Roger Severino.
Staffing concerns and budget cuts to HHS divisions that handle privacy and security may also be on Azar’s plate if he is confirmed.
Overworked professionals at HHS and budget cuts to the ONC will put added responsibilities on staff that “may not be experienced or comfortable” handling privacy or cybersecurity issues, Fader said.
Representatives for Azar didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s email request for comment.
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