California Attorney General Xavier Becerra spent a good percentage of his work week in Senate confirmation hearings for his nomination as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. On Tuesday, Becerra was queried by members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; on Wednesday, it was the Senate Finance Committee’s turn.
If confirmed, Becerra would become the first Latino to serve as HHS secretary, a role in which he would lead the $1.2 trillion agency that oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The HHS is crucial in setting health policy and, as such, has played a large role in the nation’s COVID-19 response.
If Becerra is confirmed, he will inevitably line up behind President Biden’s agenda – no surprise, given that Biden appointed him. Indeed, according to Terry Haines, founder of healthcare policy consultancy Pangea Policy, Becerra will likely “do the White House’s bidding.”
“He’s not there to be an independent healthcare expert,” Haines noted.
Haines believes Becerra will likely push changes promoted by the Biden administration, like expansion of the Affordable Care Act. “What Becerra will do is tout policies that Biden was going to tout anyway,” Haines said.
Becerra has encouraged expanding healthcare coverage under the existing law, though previously he expressed support for the government-paid healthcare system usually referred to as Medicare For All. “The mission of HHS to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans is core to who I am,” he said in a statement prior to the hearings. “We must build on what we’ve had with the Affordable Care Act to make it stronger, to provide better-quality care at more-affordable prices.”
Becerra also made it clear that increasing health equity would be a personal priority for him, given his own background growing up in a community of Mexican immigrants. He has supported Biden’s step of creating an equity task force to address COVID-19, with the aim of including more minority populations in studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the CDC.
“The last thing I need is to be one who doesn’t address these disparities in an aggressive manner,” Becerra said.
Some Republicans argue that Becerra is lacking in both health experience and bipartisanship. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Becerra a “radical and underqualified nominee,” adding that he “has no particular experience or expertise in health.”
But during the hearing, other Republicans seemed more open to his nomination. While Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski didn’t directly criticize Becerra, they didn’t necessarily offer any solid support either. When asked about rural healthcare, Becerra offered to visit Alaska himself. Murkowski responded, “Well, I would encourage that, and I would encourage that visit early.”
If all 50 Senate Republicans vote against Becerra, he would need support from the 50 Democratic senators, as well as a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris, for confirmation.
The argument that Becerra lacks direct medical expertise isn’t entirely unfair. Prior to becoming California’s Attorney General in 2017, he served as Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice. But Becerra also served in the House of Representatives for 12 terms, where he worked on Affordable Care Act legislation.
Becerra’s pro-choice beliefs also irks critics. During the hearings, Sen. Mitt Romney noted that “I think we can reach common ground on many issues, but on partial birth abortion, it sounds like we’re not going to reach common ground there.”
Democrats promise Becerra will support policies that bring more accessible and affordable health insurance coverage at a time when Americans need it. “Attorney General Becerra is the right person to lead the way in the fight against COVID-19 and continue the essential work of ensuring all Americans can get quality, affordable healthcare,” said Sen. Ron Wyden.
If Becerra is confirmed, he will likely work with the Biden administration to unravel former President Trump’s funding cuts for reproductive health providers, as well as to restore access to family planning. But Haines argued that even with Democrats in control of the Senate, Becerra’s confirmation won’t mean these changes will be easy to effect.
“This is not a nominee or a new secretary that comes in having the confidence of the vast majority of the Senate in that he’s going to be able to sway people’s views or votes,” Haines explained. “If you have half the Senate already attacking you as unqualified, there’s not really much you’re going to be able to do to turn that around.”
However, Haines did note of some potential traction around the contentious issue of drug pricing. Biden has stressed he wants to cap new drug prices, peg costs to inflation and allow Americans to buy abroad.
“You can get a lot of that done, because the desire to change that is very bipartisan,” Haines said.