Biden Fills Out Health Team to Handle Virus Response, Obamacare
(Bloomberg) -- President-elect Joe Biden named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his Health and Human Services secretary on Monday, and mostly filled out a team that will lead the incoming administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Becerra will also be tasked with expanding the Affordable Care Act, one of Biden’s key health goals beyond curbing the virus outbreak.
Biden will hold an event with some of the team Tuesday in Delaware, though key roles remains unfilled, including commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
His selections so far include Vivek Murthy, who is set to return to the role of surgeon general, a job he held under President Barack Obama, while also helping manage the U.S. government response to the coronavirus.
Murthy will work closely with Jeff Zients, one of Biden’s transition co-chairs, who was named coordinator of the Covid-19 response and counselor to the president. Zients was a top economic adviser to Obama and is credited with reviving the troubled Obamacare enrollment website. Former White House and Pentagon senior adviser Natalie Quillian will serve as Zients’s deputy coordinator.
Rochelle Walensky, the infectious diseases chief at Massachusetts General Hospital, was named director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden also named Marcella Nunez-Smith as Covid-19 Equity Task Force chair, a new job that will coordinate the government’s response to the virus. Nunez-Smith is an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine and co-chair of the Biden transition’s coronavirus advisory board.
Anthony Fauci, who became a celebrated and trusted voice on the pandemic response while President Donald Trump downplayed the virus’s threats, will keep his current job as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases but also serve as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the coronavirus.
“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,” Biden said in a statement released by his transition team.
Biden has not yet named an FDA commissioner or an administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It’s not clear when he will, or what input Becerra will have in those selections.
As of last week, his FDA shortlist was said to have included David Kessler, a former commissioner of the agency who is another co-chair of his coronavirus advisory board, and Joshua Sharfstein, a former FDA official who is a vice dean at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The new FDA chief will play a central role in reviewing trial data and weighing approvals of new coronavirus vaccines, and likely be closely involved in distribution of them.
“This is the last great battle we’re in with Covid and it’s everybody’s job to fight the pandemic now in order to save as many people as possible so they can be vaccinated later,” Sharfstein said on CNN early Monday. He demurred when asked what talks, if any, he’d had with Biden’s transition team.
Fauci, speaking to CNN on Monday morning, lauded Biden’s picks. “I’ve had considerable interactions with all of these individuals and they are outstanding,” he said.
The Infectious Diseases Society of America, a physician group, issued a statement applauding the Walensky pick. “She knows science,” added Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Her reputation precedes her.”
Murthy and Becerra may face difficult Senate confirmations if Republicans keep control of the chamber after two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5. Becerra’s lawsuits against the Trump administration are likely to face criticism and GOP senators may also oppose Murthy’s position that gun violence is a public-health threat.
Indiana Senator Mike Braun, a Republican who sits on the Senate health committee, said Monday he has “serious concerns” about Becerra because of donations he’s received from the health sector, and his support for abortion rights.
“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,” Braun said, stopping short of saying he’d vote against Becerra.
Coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks. Deaths in the U.S. have reached more than 282,000 and over 14.7 million people have been infected.
Becerra, a former congressman from the Los Angeles area, emerged as a candidate in recent days as others fell out of contention, including New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was backed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Murthy was also seen as a candidate.
Becerra’s nomination fills one of the highest-stakes roles outside of the traditional four top cabinet positions, in part because Biden has placed a heavy emphasis on the coronavirus outbreak, which has set records for new cases, daily deaths and current hospitalizations over the past week.
Becerra would have a long list of priorities in tackling the pandemic, including expanding testing, improving access to personal protective equipment and distributing a Covid-19 vaccine.
While in Congress, Becerra supported a Medicare for All bill and as recently as 2017 spoke in favor of a single-payer health system. But a person familiar with Biden’s thinking said that Becerra is also prepared to work to protect Obamacare and add a public option, as Biden has said he intends to do.
As California attorney general, Becerra has led other states with Democratic attorneys general to file lawsuits defending the Affordable Care Act against the Trump administration efforts to dismantle it. That includes a case currently before the Supreme Court.
“We need someone with a lot of experience managing a large department,” Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana congressman and Biden adviser, told CNN on Monday. “His experience is unique and I think his life experience -- which we don’t talk about enough -- as a minority is going to be very important.”
Becerra took on the largest hospital system in Northern California, Sutter Health, and reached a $575 million settlement with it over price-gouging charges. Former Obama administration officials say they expect the incoming administration to put an increased focus on health-care antitrust enforcement, which they say is contributing to rising medical costs.
Health-care consultants expect the new administration to quickly roll back some changes the Trump administration made to the implementation of the ACA. The Biden team will likely put more money into making it easier to buy insurance on the ACA marketplace, improve advertising of open enrollment, revise rules around LGBTQ protections, loosen work-eligibility requirements and roll back the expanded use of short-term health insurance plans.
The person familiar with Biden’s thinking said the most important consideration was Becerra’s history of fighting for the Affordable Care Act, first for its passage while he served in the House, and then as California attorney general.
The person pointed to Becerra’s record on health-related issues -- from lawsuits fighting vaping to joining with Louisiana’s Republican attorney general in August to lead a coalition of states urging the federal government to increase access to the Covid drug Remdesivir. That effort, and others, the person said, showed that Becerra is willing to find common ground with Republicans.
Biden has committed to building the most diverse administration ever and, if confirmed by the Senate, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead HHS.
“As attorney general, Becerra led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug costs, and protect immigrant families,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, said in a statement.
People of color have disproportionately contracted the virus and faced racial disparities in their health care that have further compounded the effects of the pandemic.
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