In choosing Xavier Becerra to be his health secretary, Joe Biden tapped a robust defender of the Affordable Care Act who will face questions about whether he possesses the health care and management experience needed to lead the massive effort to vaccinate a nation against a deadly pandemic.
As California’s attorney general, Becerra leads the nation’s largest state’s justice department, an influential perch from which he’s fought Republican efforts to roll back health coverage. But he has been less involved in the day-to-day work to combat the coronavirus, is not a health-care expert and has not overseen an office as sprawling as the Department of Health and Human Services.
With the U.S. expected to begin vaccine distribution in the coming months, few Cabinet posts will have such influence over the nation’s ability to move past the pandemic, an effort that will likely define the Biden presidency. Allies of Becerra, a former congressman who would be the first Latino HHS secretary at a time when the pandemic is taking a disproportionate toll on people of color, say he’s well suited for the role.
If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra would lead 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 Americans. Becerra, 62, tweeted Monday that in Congress he helped pass the Affordable Care Act, and as California’s attorney general he has defended it.
“As Secretary of Health and Human Services, I will build on our progress and ensure every American has access to quality, affordable health care — through this pandemic and beyond,” he wrote.
Biden was drawn to Becerra’s working-class roots, his longtime effort to increase access to health care, including in communities of color, and his work with Republicans to expand the Affordable Care Act in California and the ability of patients to get coronavirus treatments, according to two officials familiar with his decision-making process who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Becerra and the rest of Biden’s health team will be unveiled on Tuesday at a moment when the president-elect is under growing pressure to ensure that his Cabinet is diverse. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black woman to serve in the post, are also set to meet with a number of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Action Network, which are expected to stress the need for more Black members of the Cabinet.
Republicans immediately made clear their attack lines on the pick. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas argued that he was unqualified because he lacked ties to the health-care or pharmaceutical industries while Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana blasted his support for “Medicare for All.”