WASHINGTON — In selecting California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to run the Department of Health and Human Services, President-elect Joe Biden came closer to achieving his promise of appointing the most diverse Cabinet in American history. But Becerra’s lack of medical expertise makes him a somewhat unusual choice, coming as it does in the middle of a pandemic.
A transition staffer who would speak only on the condition of anonymity said that Biden had been “impressed” by the fact that Becerra has been a “longtime champion of access to health care,” in particular for the Latino communities he represented as a Los Angeles congressman.
Other health-related appointments made on Monday were somewhat more conventional. Dr. Anthony Fauci — whom President Trump threatened to fire during the election campaign — will serve as the chief White House medical adviser. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be headed by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, while Dr. Vivek Murthy has been appointed as the U.S. surgeon general. He previously held that post between 2014 and 2017, during the Obama administration. (He remained in the post for the first four months of the Trump administration.)
Becerra, the son of Mexican immigrants, will be the first person of Latino heritage to head HHS. He attended Stanford and Stanford Law School but does not have any experience in either medicine, health care delivery or pharmaceuticals. He was thought to be in the running to serve as Biden’s attorney general, a position for which he would seem to have been a more natural fit.
“I love that he will add to the diversity of the Cabinet,” Dr. Devesh Madhav Vashishtha of Seattle wrote on Twitter after the appointment was announced. “But in a time like this, you have to nominate a health care worker for HHS. This is an odd choice and, frankly, disappointing.”
The 62-year-old Becerra served in the California State Assembly in the early 1990s, then represented parts of Los Angeles in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1993 and 2017. He was appointed as California’s top attorney after Kamala Harris, now the vice president-elect, vacated that position to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Becerra rose to prominence throughout the Trump presidency by suing the administration in attempts to block its policies on immigration, health care and the environment. In August, he filed his 100th suit against the Trump White House.
“If I were a baseball player, my batting average would be the envy of MLB,” Becerra boasted back when the number of anti-Trump lawsuits was half what it is today. According to the news organization CalMatters, which has tracked Becerra’s challenges, California had won 21 cases as of July 23 while losing five to Trump. Another 63 cases were pending, while six were on hold.
In a release issued on Monday, the Biden administration said the new batch of appointees would “guard against the full range of health threats facing our nation.” The wording seems to hint that the job will also involve defending the Affordable Care Act, which may in turn explain why Becerra was selected for the HHS post.
Just days after the election, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Texas v. California, a case that could invalidate key aspects of the act. Though the justices seemed reluctant to make such a drastic move, Trump has taken plenty of other steps to vitiate key provisions of the Obama-era health law, which provided coverage to millions of previously uninsured Americans.
With the federal judiciary now stocked at every level with Trump-appointed judges, future legal efforts to weaken the ACA are likely to find favorable hearings. As a Cabinet secretary, Becerra will not be involved in countering such efforts. But his familiarity with the health law could help the Biden administration bolster the ACA. His relationships on Capitol Hill could also help.
“In Congress, I helped pass the Affordable Care Act,” Becerra tweeted on Monday. “As California’s Attorney General, I 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.”
Biden saw Becerra as an “adamant defender of the Affordable Care Act,” the transition staffer told Yahoo News. He could make Spanish-language outreach efforts to encourage vaccination, the source went on to say.
Such efforts notwithstanding, Becerra will almost certainly leave day-to-day management of the pandemic to Murthy, Walensky and, in particular, Fauci, who is trusted broadly by Americans but has been routinely demonized and undermined by Trump. No such friction with Biden is expected.
Murthy has recently been on a crusade to combat loneliness, which has only been exacerbated throughout the months of lockdowns.
Walensky is currently chair of the infectious diseases department at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has been a frequent commentator on cable news, criticizing the Trump administration for its handling of the pandemic and countering the president’s own coronavirus-related misstatements.
Last month, she debunked Trump’s false statement that the CDC claimed 85 percent of people who wore facial coverings still caught the coronavirus. And she criticized the “herd immunity” approach advocated by Dr. Scott Atlas, the controversial White House coronavirus adviser who has since resigned from his post. She said that such a hands-off approach was “destined to fail.”
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