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Biden picks California Atty. Gen. Becerra for Health and Human Services secretary

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra is President-elect Biden’s pick as HHS secretary
(Associated Press)

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra to be the next Health and Human Services secretary, a historic choice that would make the former Los Angeles congressman the first Latino to hold the office, according to sources familiar with the decision.

Becerra, 62, a rising star in California politics, has become one of the most important defenders of the Affordable Care Act, leading the fight to preserve the landmark law against efforts by the Trump administration and conservative states to persuade federal courts to repeal it.

Becerra also has carved out an increasingly important role confronting healthcare costs, using his position to challenge pricing practices at Sutter Health, one of California’s most powerful medical systems.

And he has become a leading champion of reproductive health, going to court repeatedly to challenge Trump administration efforts to scale back women’s access to abortion services and contraceptive coverage.

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Latino advocacy groups, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have been pushing Biden to pick a Latino to fill a prominent Cabinet position. Many had advocated for Becerra, though New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was considered a front-runner for HHS for some time.

News of Becerra’s selection drew swift praise from politicians, healthcare leaders and patient advocates.

“This pandemic has brought a glaring light to the health inequities in our country. … Having an individual who not only has outstanding qualifications, but also understands the needs of minority communities is imperative as our country moves forward in its fight against the pandemic,” Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) said in a statement.

Peter Lee, who heads California’s insurance marketplace, Covered California, lauded Becerra’s work in Congress and as attorney general to defend access to affordable medical care.

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“It’s a great choice,” Lee said. “He is a thoughtful, strategic leader who gets the importance of not only expanding healthcare coverage, but also addressing high costs for patients.”

Becerra’s selection drew criticism from Susan B. Anthony List head Marjorie Dannenfelser, a leading abortion opponent, who labeled the California attorney general “an extremist on abortion.”

Newsom, who has not said when he’ll make an announcement on Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Senate successor, is facing an onslaught of competing pressures over what is perhaps one of the most pivotal and politically consequential decisions he will make during his first two years in office.

As a congressman, Becerra played an important role in helping pass the 2010 healthcare law, often called Obamacare, working alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to shepherd the bill through the House.

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Becerra, who is fluent in Spanish, served 12 terms in Congress and was chair of the House Democratic Caucus before Gov. Jerry Brown picked him to be California’s attorney general. Becerra replaced Kamala Harris, who had won a Senate seat.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Becerra was the first member of his family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University and a law degree from Stanford Law School.

Becerra’s mother was born in Jalisco, Mexico and immigrated to the United States after marrying his father, who was born in Sacramento and raised in Tijuana.

Becerra has recounted how his father started out picking vegetables in the fields. “He got treated like he wasn’t a citizen,” Becerra recalled in 2017. “He couldn’t walk into restaurants because the sign said ‘No dogs or Mexicans allowed.’ He harvested the food that they were eating in those restaurants, but he could not go in there and eat.”

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Becerra said he learned his strong work ethic as a teenager laboring alongside his father on construction jobs in Sacramento.

Elected to a two-year term in the state Assembly and then to the House in 1992, he rose through the ranks to become the highest-ranking Latino in Congress at the time.

The Becerra choice came as Biden faced pressure to add more Latinos to his Cabinet beyond Homeland Security secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas.

There was considerable chatter about bringing Becerra on as U.S. attorney general, but the transition team also viewed Becerra as particularly well qualified to head the Health and Human Services Department, according to a person familiar with the process.

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Becerra already runs a sprawling, complicated bureaucracy in California. He has been a national leader in multistate efforts to preserve the Affordable Care Act. And he enlisted GOP attorneys general in legal efforts to take on opioid makers, tobacco companies and pharmaceutical firms, showing an ability to work across the aisle that Biden values.

While Becerra has been a proponent of “Medicare for all,” he is not expected to pursue that goal in the role of HHS chief, championing instead Biden’s plan to expand and strengthen the 2010 healthcare law with a so-called public option.

The person familiar with the process said Biden also sees in Becerra’s personal history similarities to his own: working-class roots, parents who instilled the dignity of work and a decades-long commitment to public service.

If confirmed, Becerra will take the helm of a sprawling federal agency that spends more than $1.4 trillion annually and is responsible for the health coverage of more than 100 million Americans, mostly through the mammoth government Medicare and Medicaid plans.

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The health secretary also oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two of the agencies at the forefront of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both agencies, though once considered international models, have been widely criticized for their response. They have also suffered serious blows to their credibility as Trump and his allies have pressured agency leaders to change guidance to fit the White House political agenda.

One of the new health secretary’s main jobs will be rebuilding public trust in these agencies, a goal that Biden has indicated will be a top priority for his administration.

The president-elect announced last week that he would ask Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, to be his chief medical advisor, restoring Fauci to a position of influence in the White House after Trump and his allies sidelined the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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Biden is also expected next week to tap Dr. Vivek Murthy to be surgeon general, another important addition to the COVID response effort.

Murthy, who has been helping lead Biden’s coronavirus planning effort, is viewed as a gifted healthcare communicator and champion of public health. He served for nearly 2 ½ years as surgeon general, mostly under President Obama.

The son of immigrants from India, Murthy graduated from Yale Medical School. Murthy also has a business degree and a background in politics, having founded Doctors for America, an advocacy organization that supported Obama’s push to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

In addition to strengthening the federal coronavirus response, Becerra will likely be called upon to reverse the Trump administration‘s years-long campaign to weaken insurance rules and other protections enacted through the 2010 healthcare law.

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Trump and his lieutenants — including current Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Seema Verma, who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — failed to repeal the healthcare law.

But the administration issued rules to allow broader sale of health insurance plans that don’t cover basic benefits and can turn away people with preexisting medical conditions.

Times staff writer Sarah Wire contributed to this report.


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