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Biden picks California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead Health and Human Services

As the nation’s next top health official, Becerra will arguably hold the most consequential Cabinet role at the outset of Biden’s new administration.
Image: Xavier Becerra
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks at a news conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on March 7, 2018.Stephen Lam / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden on Monday picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and created three new senior White House positions intended to signal a more aggressive response to Covid-19, including addressing its disproportionate impact on Black people and Latinos.

Becerra, 62, served 12 terms in the House of Representatives and was a vigorous defender of the Affordable Care Act who led the defense of the law in the Supreme Court last month.

If he is confirmed, he would be the first Latino to lead the massive department as the incoming administration tries to elevate more diverse candidates to front-line positions. Biden offered Becerra the position in a phone call Friday.

The news of his selection was first reported by The New York Times.

In 2016, Becerra was elected in California to run the largest state justice department in the country, succeeding Vice President-elect Kamala Harris after she was elected to the Senate.

His experience in the role, which included working with Republican officials to increase access to new Covid-19 treatments and spearheading legal challenges to opioid manufacturers, factored into his getting the final nod, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement planned for Tuesday.

Becerra is the second Latino tapped as a Cabinet official in the Biden administration, joining Alejandro Mayorkas, who was nominated last week to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

In addition to Becerra, Biden is tapping Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a leading expert on virus testing, prevention and treatment to serve as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She is currently chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Politico was first to report the pick of Walensky to run the CDC.

A surprise

The appointment of Becerra to lead HHS came as something of a surprise, given that he was not originally mentioned as a top contender for the position.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the co-chair of Biden’s transition who was favored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, fell out of contention after turning down the job of interior secretary. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who had also been on the short list, took herself out of contention Friday, saying her focus needed to stay on battling her state’s spiking Covid caseload.

Last week, Biden picked Dr. Vivek Murthy to return as surgeon general and said the top federal infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, would take on the additional role of chief medical adviser. Former National Economic Council director Jeff Zients will be named coordinator of the Covid-19 response.

With the pandemic surging nationwide, Biden has sought to assemble a team with significant experience in public health, government and crisis management skills to restore public trust in the federal response.

Fauci is expected to work closely with Zients, whose title will include counselor to the president. Both new positions are intended to telegraph a deeper government role, including overseeing supply chains, in ending a pandemic that has sickened 14 million Americans and killed more than 280,000. President Donald Trump, by contrast, has made clear he doesn’t want the federal government organizing supply chains for personal protective gear or testing and contract tracing programs.

Fauci, who will remain director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has clashed repeatedly with Trump over the federal response to the pandemic. In a “TODAY” show interview on Friday, he said that he’d accepted Biden’s offer “on the spot.”

Zients’s background managing complex initiatives — including creating in 2013 to help enroll more Americans in the Affordable Care Act — helped prepare him to oversee vaccine distribution, the personal protective gear and vaccine supply chain and to improve coordination across federal agencies and state and local governments, Biden officials said.

On Tuesday, Biden is expected to formally announced the roles for Becerra, Walensky, Murthy, Fauci and Zients, plus other members of his administration’s health team, including:

  • Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a specialist on health care disparities, to serve as chair of the Covid-19 Equity Task Force, a newly created panel and position within the White House. She is the founding director of Yale’s Equity Research and Innovation Center and co-chair of the president-elect’s Covid-19 Transition Advisory Board. She will advise Biden on efforts to reduce Covid disparities in response, care, and treatment, including racial and ethnic disparities.
  • Natalie Quillian, a national security expert and former White House and Pentagon senior adviser under President Barack Obama, to serve as deputy national coordinator of the Covid response.

“This team of world-class medical experts and public servants will be ready on day one to mobilize every resource of the federal government to expand testing and masking, oversee the safe, equitable, and free distribution of treatments and vaccines, re-open schools and businesses safely, lower prescription drug and other health costs and expand affordable health care to all Americans, and rally the country and restore the belief that there is nothing beyond America's capacity if we do it together,” Biden said in a statement.

As the nation’s next top health official, Becerra will arguably hold the most consequential Cabinet role at the outset of Biden’s new administration — managing the response to what is expected to be the deadliest phase of the pandemic this winter.

Becerra is the son of an immigrant mother from Mexico and a U.S. citizen father who moved between the U.S. and Mexico during his lifetime, and he was the first in his family to graduate from college. He began his career as a legal aid attorney supporting clients dealing with mental health needs, demonstrating a longer term commitment to expanding health care, Biden aides said.

Biden will also face a significant challenge in building public confidence in multiple new vaccines, particularly in underserved communities. While public health experts agree that mass vaccination of Americans is essential to getting the virus under control and restoring some semblance of normal life, a recent Gallup survey found 42 percent of U.S. adults said they would not get the vaccine.

While the Trump administration has made detailed preparations for the first phase of the vaccine rollout aimed at inoculating health workers and long-term care residents, numerous state and local officials told NBC last week that there has been little federal preparation for the bulk of mass vaccination, leaving that to the new administration.

A long list of other challenges await the Biden team beyond the pandemic, such as shoring up and expanding the Affordable Care Act, addressing a looming shortfall in the Medicare trust fund and addressing high drug prices.

The Health and Human Services Department has an annual budget of nearly $1.3 trillion and 80,000 employees spanning eight agencies and 11 operating divisions. It includes the CDC, where the appointment of Walensky is intended as an explicit nod to frontline health care workers facing the toughest working conditions in generations.