Biden HHS Pick Would Be First Transgender Nominee Confirmed by Senate

President-elect Joe Biden nominated Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to a senior role at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that would make her the first openly transgender person to hold a Senate-confirmed position.

Levine sometimes clashed with the Trump administration during the Covid-19 response as leader of a group of state health officers. If confirmed, she’ll take over the role of Assistant Secretary of Health currently held by Admiral Brett Giroir, who led coronavirus testing efforts under Trump.

It’s unclear whether Levine would have a similar portfolio in the Biden administration. A spokesman for the presidential transition didn’t elaborate in response to a request for more details.

Biden has named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead HHS. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health is one of seven assistant secretary positions within the department. The position oversees several offices related to research and public health.

A graduate of Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, Levine is a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. Subjects she’s written about include the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders and LGBTQ medicine.

Deeply Qualified Choice

Biden, who has pledged to make diversity a guiding principle in his administrative picks, called her “a historic and deeply qualified choice.”

As president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and leader of Pennsylvania’s pandemic response, Levine was sometimes critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis, including its statements regarding when vaccines might become available.

In September, after the administration abruptly changed testing guidelines and Trump suggested vaccines would be ready before Election Day on Nov. 3, Levine said federal health agencies “must be empowered to lead in order to maintain the scientific integrity of these decisions without fear of political retribution.”

State and local officials had been left out of policy discussions and only learned about federal decisions at the same time as the public, she said in a statement issued by ASTHO. That approach “creates confusion and stress at a time when intentional collaboration is needed,” she said.

Legal Protections

In Pennsylvania, some pandemic restrictions backed by Levine and Governor Tom Wolf were later struck down in federal court last year as unconstitutional.

If she’s confirmed, Levine would join an agency that, under Trump, attempted to roll back some legal protections for transgender people.

Levine “will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said Tuesday in a statement.

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