U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be his health secretary, putting a defender of the Affordable Care Act in a leading role to oversee his administration’s coronavirus response.
Biden’s selection of Becerra was confirmed by two people familiar with the decision, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement anticipated Tuesday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra, 62, will be the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a $1-trillion-plus agency with 80,000 employees and a portfolio that includes drugs and vaccines, leading-edge medical research and health insurance programs covering more than 130 million people in the U.S.
Separately, Biden picked a Harvard infectious disease expert, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Two people also anonymously confirmed the choice of Walensky. The post of CDC director does not require Senate confirmation.
As California’s attorney general, Becerra has led the coalition of Democratic states defending “Obamacare” from the Trump administration’s latest effort to overturn it, a legal case awaiting a Supreme Court decision next year.
A former senior House Democrat, Becerra played a role in steering the Obama health law through Congress in 2009 and 2010. At the time he would tell reporters that one of the primary motivations for him was having tens of thousands of uninsured people in his Southern California district.
Overseeing the coronavirus response will be the most complicated task Becerra has ever contemplated. By next year, the U.S. will be engaged in a mass vaccination campaign, the groundwork for which has been laid under the Trump administration. Although the vaccines appear very promising, and no effort has been spared to plan for their distribution, it’s impossible to tell yet how well things will go when it’s time to get shots in the arms of millions of people across the country.
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The core components of HHS are the boots on the ground of the government’s coronavirus response. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees vaccines and treatments, while much of the underlying scientific and medical research comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The CDC takes the lead in detecting and containing the spread of diseases. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides insurance coverage for more than 1 in 3 Americans, including vulnerable seniors, as well as many children and low-income people.
Under U.S. President Donald Trump, the CDC was relegated to a lesser role after agency scientists issued a stark early warning that contradicted Trump’s assurances the virus was under control, rattling financial markets. The FDA was the target of repeated attacks from a president who suspected its scientists were politically motivated and who also wanted them to rubber-stamp unproven treatments.
As CDC director, Walensky would replace Dr. Robert Redfield, who accurately told the public coronavirus vaccines would not be available for most people until next year, only to be disparaged by Trump as “confused.” Walensky is a leading infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and has devoted her career to combatting HIV/AIDS.
As California’s attorney general, Becerra jokingly became known in Democratic legal circles as the man who sued Trump more than anyone else. Beyond health care, the lawsuits centred on issues from immigration to environmental policies.
Before he became California’s attorney general, Becerra had served for more than a decade in Congress, representing parts of Los Angeles County. He had also served in the California state assembly after attending law school at Stanford.
His mother was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and emigrated to the U.S. after marrying his father.