President Joe Biden’s nomination for HHS secretary, Xavier Becerra, told senators on the health committee Tuesday morning he would continue work he did as California attorney general to combat anticompetitive practices in healthcare and go after providers that “unfairly jack up prices on patients.”
Becerra was expected to face opposition from Republicans because of his prior support for “Medicare for All” and abortion rights. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., gave a taste of GOP opposition Tuesday by accusing Becerra of disregard for the value of innovation from the private sector.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., kicked off the hearing by voicing her support that Becerra will “put special interests on notice, put patients and public health first and put science, data and experts back in the driver’s seat.”
Although Becerra’s confirmation may not be as smooth as some of Biden’s other cabinet picks, he will likely reach the 50 Senate votes he needs to take the mantle at HHS. Conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia haven’t yet said whether they support the pick, but Becerra could potentially nab some votes from more centrist Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
On Monday, 11 GOP senators wrote to Biden arguing that the nomination should be withdrawn because Becerra has “no meaningful experience in healthcare, public health, large-scale logistics, or any other areas critical to meeting our present challenges.”
Burr ended his opening remarks by saying he had an open mind but wasn’t sold yet. “I’m not sure that you have the necessary experience or skills to do this job at this moment,” he told Becerra.
The AHA, AMA and other industry groups however have backed Becerra, calling him a highly qualified and effective policymaker.
Becerra said the COVID-19 pandemic will be his top priority and much of that work will be on vaccine distribution and education. He recognized, however, “we have a ways to go to regain the trust of the American people.”
If confirmed he would become the first Latino to lead HHS. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said at Tuesday’s hearing he knows Becerra would not take that honor lightly because he “views it as a great responsibility.”
Becerra as California AG led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act against a lawsuit from red states arguing it is unconstitutional, a case now pending before the Supreme Court. He also took up healthcare antitrust issues, going after Sutter Health for alleged anticompetitive actions and garnering a $575 million settlement.
Before beginning his tenure as AG, Becerra served 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Becerra will be back in the hot seat Wednesday for his second confirmation hearing, this one in front of the Senate Finance Committee. That will be the committee voting on whether to send his nomination to the full Senate for a vote.