By Jake Johnson
President-elect Joe Biden’s reported decision to nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) amid a deadly pandemic was welcomed by progressives as a positive and encouraging step, given Becerra’s record of supporting Medicare for All, taking legal action against corporate healthcare giants, and advocating bold steps to lower drug prices.
Prior to becoming California’s top law enforcement official, Becerra served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he co-sponsored Medicare for All legislation in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011. During an interview in 2017, Becerra said he “absolutely” supports the kind of single-payer plan championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“I’ve been a supporter of Medicare for All for the 24 years that I was in Congress,” said Becerra. “This year, as attorney general, I would fight for that if we had an opportunity to put that forward in the state of California, because I think what we do is we give people that certainty that they’re going to able to access a doctor or a hospital.”
As HHS secretary, Becerra would have the power to grant waivers allowing states to set up their own single-payer systems.
Across the nation, Latino leadership noted their support for Becerra.
“In this moment of crisis with COVID-19 devastating Latino communities, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is proud that California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a dedicated public servant, will be nominated by President-Elect Biden to lead to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As Attorney General, Becerra led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug costs, and protect immigrant families,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Chairman Joaquin Castro (TX-20) in a statement. “Becerra has lived the American Dream and he is a champion for working families, which we saw firsthand during his tenure as a leader in Congress.”
Becerra currently serves as the 33rd Attorney General of California, the first Latino to hold the position in the 171 years of its existence. He would also be the first Latino to lead the HHS.
“Xavier Becerra has excelled as a member of the U.S. Congress, as California attorney general, and he will bring the same level of knowledge, talent, energy, commitment and compassion to his new role as Secretary of Health and Human Services during the greatest public health crisis in our time,” said UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía. “Latinos have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic and by naming the first Latino to run HHS, President-elect Biden has made another historic and stellar choice for his cabinet.”
In November 2020, Becerra led the defense of the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court on behalf of twenty states and the District of Columbia.
“Xavier Becerra has excelled as a member of the U.S. Congress, as California attorney general, and he will bring the same level of knowledge, talent, energy, commitment and compassion to his new role as Secretary of Health and Human Services during the greatest public health crisis in our time.”
Janet Murguía, UnidosUS
Prior to his tenure as Attorney General, Becerra served twelve terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming a key fixture of the Committee on Ways and Means, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Social Security, and, ultimately, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. The son of working-class parents who was the first member of his family to graduate from college, Becerra started his career as a legal aid attorney supporting clients contending with mental health issues before becoming a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice and serving one term in the State Assembly. Originally from Sacramento, Becerra received his bachelor of arts degree from Stanford and his JD from Stanford Law School.
Becerra told Kaiser Health News last year that his views have been shaped by his experience as the son of Mexican immigrants. Describing his mother’s miscarriage, he said that everyone should be able to go to the doctor: “For me, health care is a right,” he said. “I’ve been a single-payer advocate all my life.”
After years of an HHS led by former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar—who is openly hostile to the idea of a single-payer healthcare system—Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said late Sunday that “it’s exciting that we’ll finally have a Medicare for All advocate leading the Department of Health and Human Services.”
But while Becerra’s past support for Medicare for All was seen as a hopeful sign, progressives stressed that continued public pressure and relentless grassroots work will still be needed to advance the cause of a national single-payer system during the incoming Biden administration.
Winnie Wong, a former senior adviser to Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted that Becerra is “a good California liberal who will work within an entrenched bureaucracy to get us to a public option.”
He is not, however, “going to set the bridge on fire on his personal crusade to abolish private insurers,” Wong added. “That’s on us!”
As The Daily Poster‘s David Sirota and Andrew Pérez wrote late Sunday, Becerra would if confirmed “be in a position to take the action on drug prices that he previously urged the Obama administration to take—though it remains unclear whether Biden would support such a move.”
“Back in 2016,” Sirota and Pérez noted, “Becerra was one of the 51 House Democratic lawmakers who signed a letter calling on Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary to use so-called ‘march-in rights’ to effectively rescind exclusive patents for medicines whose research and development was originally funded by government agencies.”
“This year, Becerra was one of 34 state attorneys general to sign a letter demanding the federal government use ‘march-in rights’ to make the early-onset COVID treatment remdesivir—whose research and development was sponsored by the government—more widely available and affordable to all,” added Sirota and Perez.
President-elect Joe Biden also announced key nominations and appointments of his health team, including Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, COVID-19 Equity Task Force Chair; Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to the President on COVID-19, who will also continue in his role as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Jeff Zients, Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response and Counselor to the President. In addition, former White House and Pentagon senior advisor Natalie Quillian will serve as Deputy Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response.
“We also applaud the President-elect’s picks to lead the federal government’s health work. Having diversity of backgrounds and experience in our nation’s highest posts can lead to a government that is more responsive to the needs of the American people. This is especially true when it comes to our nation’s health, as this year we have all seen the importance of having credible and dedicated health leadership at the federal level. Given how much is at stake for the health of our community and country with COVID-19, the future of the Affordable Care Act and issues around equity in health care, we need a team that is ready on day one,” stated Murguía.
“We welcome the news of Becerra’s nomination, and the CHC is encouraging President-Elect Biden to appoint five Latinos in the Cabinet, including Latinas in prominent positions. We will continue to work in partnership with the Biden-Harris transition team to assemble the most diverse administration in American history,” added Rep. Castro.
Jake Johnson is a staff writer with CommonDreams. The Weekly Issue/El Semanario contributed to this article.
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