As California Attorney General, Becerra sued the Trump administration over 100 times, often in defense of affordable and accessible health care. Now nominated to lead HHS, he could fix bad policy from the ground up.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, picked by President-elect Joe Biden to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has years of health policy and politics to his credit. He’s also been a stumbling block for Donald Trump, suing the administration 107 times in cases ranging from opposing the president’s attacks on the Affordable Care Act to protecting abortion access.
“I don’t think you could find anyone who’s been a bigger thorn in Trump’s side when it comes to health care than Becerra,” Kaiser Family Foundation health policy expert Larry Levitt told The Hill.
Biden’s choice to lead the HHS is particularly important, as it oversees the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, childcare and welfare programs, and programs for seniors and refugee resettlement. HHS also manages the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has struggled to provide scientific guidance on COVID-19, despite political interference from the current administration.
Opponents of the pick have focused on Becerra’s liberal history and the perceived disconnect created by a lawyer heading a public health institution. However, Becerra has a broader health policy background than many previous HHS directors, in addition to knowledge of the industry’s finance and delivery systems.
“COVID is the biggest issue on the table, but it is not the only issue on the table,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “If you look at his body of work, he is not your traditional attorney. His body of work in the health area is substantial.”
Becerra, 62, spent 24 years in the US House of Representatives before becoming California’s attorney general in 2017. While in the House, Becerra fought for the establishment of the ACA when more than a third of the people in his Los Angeles district didn’t have health insurance, according to the Census Bureau. It was the third-highest rate in the nation at the time.
“Folks look at (the law) as a chance to have some peace of mind that, as I keep saying because it’s so true in my district, that they don’t have to worry about sending their son or daughter to the hospital with the fear that when they come home, they’re also going to get a bill that will drive them into personal bankruptcy,” Becerra said in 2014.
He also was a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which handles legislation and oversight related to Medicare, becoming a staunch advocate of Medicare for All.
Once tapped for California attorney general in 2017, Becerra filed over 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration. One such suit opposed a rule to cut off Title X federal family planning funds from clinics that provide abortions or that refer patients for abortions. His office also reined in anti-competitive behavior from Sutter Health, a hospital conglomerate that drove up healthcare costs and sponsored legislation to stop drugmakers involved in pay-for-delay schemes.
If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra’s decades of relationship building on Capitol Hill could be an asset for the Biden administration. He would also be the first Latino to head HHS.
“Becerra spent years trying to stop Trump’s health agenda in court, and now he’ll have an opportunity to try to undo it directly,” Levitt said.