Health secretary focuses trips on swing states needed by Trump

• Jul 02, 2020

In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s top health official is focused on showing his face in states that President Donald Trump needs to win for reelection.

Since late April, HHS Secretary Alex Azar has made 11 trips to states — including nine to key battlegrounds in the 2020 campaign: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Maine and North Carolina, as well as two trips apiece to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. One of the other two trips was a visit to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of a top aide who recently joined the department at Trump’s request and personally arranged Azar’s visit to the city. The other was to Boston, the media market for yet another battleground state, New Hampshire.

The health secretary’s agenda at these stops included visiting hospitals, announcing awards and pushing on a message that the president was steadily managing the crisis. Some of the trips were part of Azar’s “health vs. health” messaging campaign, where he argued that an overriding focus to contain the coronavirus was creating other risks to mental health and well-being.

"We’ve got so much testing capacity here in the country now thanks to the president building this unprecedented, historically unprecedented testing system," Azar said in a trip to Florida on May 22, which followed months of criticism that the Trump administration was unprepared to roll out widespread coronavirus testing.

“What we’re seeing in places like Georgia or other parts around the country is as we reopen, people can get back connected to work, school, to summer camp to health care in ways that are safe,” Azar told a local Atlanta TV station on June 16 during his trip to the state, praising Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for their response. In the interview, the health secretary also dismissed recent coronavirus spikes around the nation as the product of more testing, the station reported, a claim that public health experts have subsequently debunked.

Some of Azar’s trips were conducted jointly with the White House or closely scheduled, like Azar’s visit to Wisconsin health facilities last week that preceded Trump’s visit to the swing state the next day. Azar also accompanied Trump on a May 14 trip to Pennsylvania and a June 5 trip to Maine, and he joined Vice President Mike Pence for a trip to Wisconsin on April 21, as part of a series of trips where White House officials toured factories making coronavirus-related supplies.

Azar’s trips come amid plunging poll numbers for Trump over his handling of the virus, even in once-reliable Republican strongholds like Georgia. A survey conducted by left-leaning Public Policy Polling, also released on June 16, found that Democratic challenger Joe Biden had a narrow lead over Trump in the state. Trump also is behind Biden by five or more points in states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to a CNBC/Change Research poll released on Wednesday.

Azar’s frequent visits to swing states — and his consistent promotion of Trump — struck current and former HHS officials as unusually political for a Cabinet secretary, particularly during an outbreak that Azar’s department has struggled to manage.

Several Obama administration veterans noted that the swing states visited by Azar were not, with a few exceptions, where the outbreak was most serious, suggesting that the health chief was prioritizing politics over helping the states that were most affected.

“This shows the president’s priorities,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services during the Obama administration. “I’d like to see the members of the task force dutifully working on and reporting on this crisis or if they travel, going to hospitals in Arizona, Texas, and Florida rather than Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”

Leslie Dach, senior counselor to former HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, said, “That kind of travel was not considered or talked about in the time I was there.” He added that Burwell was "tethered to her desk" during public-health crises like Ebola and Zika.

The Biden campaign also argued that the Trump administration was prioritizing politics over public health. “It's absolutely shameful that Secretary Azar is hitting the campaign trail on the taxpayer's dime even as COVID-19 cases spike across the country,” said Biden spokesperson Michael Gwin.

In a statement, HHS said questions about Azar’s travel priorities were “wrong and insulting.” The department listed off examples of the health secretary visiting states to gauge reopening efforts, such as Azar’s May 21 trip to North Carolina, where Azar met with local health leaders and discussed efforts to protect NASCAR drivers and attendees of the scheduled Republican National Convention.

“Secretary Azar and President Trump believe that every single American voice deserves to be heard and that’s why we’re traveling around his country to learn and inform the response,” said Michael Caputo, the department’s top spokesperson. “We’re committed to getting the message directly to the American people about the Trump Administration’s actions to keep Americans healthy and safe instead of filtering the message through biased reporters in Washington with an anti-Trump agenda.”

Caputo, a Trump loyalist who was installed at HHS by the president in April, helped arrange Azar’s trip to Buffalo, N.Y., after speaking with an old friend who was working on a hospital project there, according to a Buffalo News article last month that Caputo promoted on his Twitter feed.

Asked about arranging the trip, Caputo confirmed his involvement and said that the goal of the New York trip was to highlight the need to resume local cancer screenings, which had dramatically declined, and other health procedures.

“Buffalo General was having difficulty getting a waiver from Governor [Andrew] Cuomo to reopen for elective procedures, but when the governor heard that Secretary Azar was coming, the hospital was granted a waiver that same day,” Caputo said. “Today, cancer screenings are returning to normal and Buffalo General Hospital is resuming elective procedures apace. You’re welcome.”

In recent weeks, Azar has been working to get back into the president’s good graces after a series of controversies.

Late in the spring, senior White House officials weighed replacing Azar after a series of widely publicized internal battles between the secretary and other top officials, including Medicaid chief Seema Verma and then-domestic policy chief Joe Grogan. The White House also grew frustrated with how Azar was managing the coronavirus response, leading to Trump abruptly replacing Azar with Pence as head of the White House coronavirus task force on Feb. 26.

Meanwhile, Azar has struggled to deliver on Trump’s ambitious plan of lowering drug prices, with the administration having abandoned many of the provisions that Azar initially laid out as part of a 2018 drug-pricing blueprint. Drug makers boosted the prices of nearly 500 prescription drugs at the start of this year, according to health care research firm 3 Axis Advisors, and drug price hikes remain “relentless,” according to a March 3 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the secretary has been assured that his status is secure through the election, barring any major controversies, four officials with knowledge of internal deliberations said.

Caputo, the HHS spokesperson, disputed reports about Azar’s standing, saying “I can tell you that the American people want information they can use to fight the coronavirus, not palace intrigue still circulating months after it’s been debunked.”

But inside the health agency, some officials said Azar’s trips to battleground states — where he has relentlessly promoted Trump’s work in interviews with local media — reflected his growing rapprochement with the White House as well as a desire to stake out his own lane, even as Azar deputies like Verma, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn have seen their own profiles grow during the crisis.

“There is a figurehead responsibility that goes along with that role” as secretary, said a senior HHS official. “He has been searching for his role ever since he chaired the coronavirus task force and was dethroned.”

The official then pointed to Azar’s key role in the Operation Warp Speed vaccine project as well as his renewed high-profile on TV programs like “Meet the Press” this past weekend and at White House briefings, after a monthslong period when the health secretary was publicly sidelined. “These things, taken in totality paint a very different picture than the guy who was embattled,” the official said.

In media appearances that accompanied his trips, Azar also consistently touted an optimistic view of the coronavirus crisis, including for his recent visit to health facilities in Massachusetts — whose TV and radio stations broadcast into the populous Boston suburbs of southern New Hampshire, another battleground state.

“That’s why I’m coming up to Boston, and I’m traveling around the country, is to get the message out that thanks to President Trump’s historic response to this crisis and work with our governors, we need to reopen,” Azar said in an appearance on a conservative talk radio host Howie Carr’s program on June 11— “the woke mob is coming for Paw Patrol” episode — ahead of his visit to Massachusetts the next day. “We have the tools to do it.”


You can read the full article by Dan Diamond here

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