Biden Unveils Health Team, With Becerra as HHS Secretary
Health Care

Biden Unveils Health Team, With Becerra as HHS Secretary

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday announced nominations for top members of his health care team, the officials who will be responsible for leading the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, distributing vaccines and implementing the new administration’s plans to strengthen the Affordable Care Act.

Biden’s picks include:

Xavier Becerra as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Becerra, 62, served 12 terms in Congress and has been California’s attorney general since 2017. In that role, has been a leading defender of the Affordable Care Act, bringing legal challenges to Trump administration efforts to weaken and invalidate the law, including a case now before the Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the department. He had been rumored to be a candidate to be Biden’s attorney general.

There are already questions about Becerra’s qualifications for the job, given that he has little health policy experience and hasn’t run a bureaucracy as large as HHS, which has more than 80,000 employees. Becerra “has a thinner management resume than previous HHS secretaries like former governors Tommy Thompson, Mike Leavitt and Kathleen Sebelius,” Politico notes. “Meanwhile, Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Alex Azar had spent considerable time as high-level administration officials and in senior roles at large organizations before they were tapped to run HHS.”

But Biden faced pressure to include more Latinos in his Cabinet, and the president-elect reportedly placed significant importance on Becerra’s track record of fighting to support Obamacare and expand access to health care. Some health policy experts lauded the choice. “You need a leader, manager,” Andy Slavitt, who led the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama, told The Washington Post. “He’s just a great fit. Right temperament.”

Larry Levitt, executive vice president of health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that Becerra “has been perhaps the biggest thorn in President Trump's side on the ACA, reproductive health, and immigrant rights. If confirmed, he will have an opportunity to overturn much of what Trump has done.” He added: “It's been more under the radar, but Xavier Becerra has also aggressively gone after anti-competitive practices in the hospital industry that keep prices high.”

Becerra will face questions from Republicans about qualifications and his past support for Medicare for All. “I will meet with Xavier Becerra to ask how his political donations from insurance companies and his support for abortions and Medicare for All makes him qualified to serve as the Secretary of Health and Human Services,” Indiana Senator Mike Braun (R-IN), who sits on the Senate health committee, said, according to Bloomberg News.

Vivek Murthy as surgeon general. Murthy held the same job under President Barack Obama.

Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walensky has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s pandemic response.

“In the Biden administration, the CDC will take on a much larger and public role,” Politico reports, “with plans to revive regular media briefings and give a central role to career officials who have been pushed aside by President Donald Trump. Biden and his advisers have emphasized that they want to prioritize scientists over politics in responding to the pandemic.”

Anthony Fauci will stay on in his role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases but also serve as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the coronavirus.

Jeff Zients to be coordinator of the Covid-19 response and counselor to the president. Zients is a former management consultant and business executive who is serving as Biden transition co-chair. He served as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and National Economic Council director under Obama but is best known for helping to fix the “Cash for Clunkers” program and the website after its problem-plagued rollout.

Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, as Covid-19 Equity Task Force chair, a new job in which the transition team says she will advise Biden on efforts to reduce “disparities in response, care, and treatment, including racial and ethnic disparities.”

“This trusted and accomplished team of leaders will bring the highest level of integrity, scientific rigor, and crisis-management experience to one of the toughest challenges America has ever faced — getting the pandemic under control so that the American people can get back to work, back to their lives, and back to their loved ones,” Biden said in a statement.

Biden has not yet named his picks to head the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.