HHS nominee says pandemic comes first but agenda is broader

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (February 23, 2021) — President Joe Biden's pick for health secretary, Xavier Becerra, told senators Tuesday that tackling the coronavirus pandemic will be his first priority if confirmed, but he also pledged to work to expand health insurance coverage, curb prescription drug costs and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in medical care.

"The COVID pandemic has killed 500,000 Americans," Becerra told the Senate health committee. "To meet this moment, we need strong federal leadership." A former congressman from the Los Angeles area, he currently serves as California's attorney general.

Becerra cited Biden's goals of 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days, increasing access to testing, ramped up DNA mapping of the virus to track worrisome mutations and reopening schools and businesses.

On health insurance, he pledged to work to expand the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, although in the past he's supported a government-run health care system.

The Californian faces two days of contentious hearings. Republicans are portraying Becerra as unfit, but Democrats are accusing the GOP of playing politics despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Becerra will be grilled by two panels. Following the health committee, he'll be questioned Wednesday by the Finance Committee, which will vote on sending his nomination to the Senate floor. If confirmed, he'd be the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a $1.4 trillion agency with a broad portfolio that includes health insurance programs, drug safety and approvals, advanced medical research and the welfare of children.

Ranking Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina on Tuesday left no doubt Becerra faces a tough road to win GOP support.

"I'm not sold yet," Burr said, looking at the nominee. "I'm not sure that you have the necessary experience or skill to do this job at this moment." In his opening statement, Burr questioned whether Becerra respects the role private companies, and particularly pharmaceutical firms, play in delivering innovation that benefits patients.

Republican opposition has grown louder ahead of his nomination hearings. On Monday, Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Tom Cotton of Arkansas released a letter in which they asked Biden to withdraw the nomination, calling Becerra "unfit for any position of public trust." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called him "famously partisan." And the political group Heritage Action for America launched a cable and digital ad campaign against Becerra.

Republicans say Becerra is a radical supporter of socialized medicine, abortion and curbs on religious liberty and that he has no medical experience.

But Republicans are "just flailing around," Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon said Monday. "They've done their best to try to find something that could stick in terms of their opposition, but there's no 'there' there."

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