President-elect Joe Biden has picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be the next health and human services secretary. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Biden picks California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for health and human services secretary

By Noam N. Levey and Sarah D. Wire

Los Angeles Times

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped California Attorney General 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 a source familiar with the decision.

Becerra, 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 convince federal courts to repeal it.

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

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 and health care leaders.

“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.

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

As a congressman, Becerra played an important role in helping pass the 2010 health care law, often called Obamacare, working alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to shepherd the bill through the House.

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

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

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.

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.

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 coronavirus 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 agencies 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.

Becerra will also likely be called upon to reverse the Trump administration yearslong campaign to weaken insurance rules and other protections enacted through the 2010 health care law.

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 health care 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.

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