Biden Taps Becerra, Murthy to Lead Health Team Amid Pandemic

President-elect Joe Biden named California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his Health and Human Services secretary on Monday and filled out a team that will lead the incoming administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Becerra will also be tasked with expanding the Affordable Care Act, one of Biden’s key health goals beyond curbing the virus outbreak.

Biden also announced he was returning Vivek Murthy to the role of surgeon general, a job he held under President Barack Obama, but this time his role will be expanded to include managing the U.S. government response to the coronavirus.

Murthy will work closely with Jeff Zients, one of Biden’s transition co-chairs, who was named coordinator of the Covid-19 response and counselor to the president. Zients was a top economic adviser to Obama and is credited with reviving the troubled Obamacare enrollment website. Former White House and Pentagon senior adviser Natalie Quillian will serve as Zients’s deputy coordinator.

175,663 in U.S.Most new cases today

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Rochelle Walensky, the infectious diseases chief at Massachusetts General Hospital, was named director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden also named Marcella Nunez-Smith as Covid-19 Equity Task Force Chair, a new job that will coordinate the government’s response to the virus. Nunez-Smith is an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine and co-chair of the Biden transition’s coronavirus advisory board.

Anthony Fauci, who became a celebrated and trusted voice on the pandemic response while President Donald Trump downplayed its threats, will keep his current job as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases but also serve as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the coronavirus.

“This trusted and accomplished team of leaders will bring the highest level of integrity, scientific rigor, and crisis-management experience to one of the toughest challenges America has ever faced -- getting the pandemic under control,” Biden said in a statement released by his transition team.

Fauci, speaking to CNN on Monday morning, lauded Biden’s picks. “I’ve had considerable interactions with all of these individuals and they are outstanding,” he said. He said he wasn’t yet sure what shape Biden’s coronavirus task force would take, and that his role wouldn’t be “substantially different” than his current one. Trump has largely frozen out Fauci and has rarely engaged directly with his task force.

Biden is due to hold an event Tuesday unveiling some of his health team, a transition official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the event hasn’t yet been announced.

Murthy and Becerra may face difficult Senate confirmations if Republicans keep control of the chamber after two runoff elections in Georgia on Jan. 5. Becerra’s lawsuits against the Trump administration are likely to face criticism and GOP senators may also oppose Murthy’s position that gun violence is a public-health threat.

Coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks. Deaths in the U.S. have reached more than 282,000 and some 14.7 million people have been infected.

Health and Human Services is a vast government department that oversees the CDC, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, among others. Biden hasn’t yet announced an FDA commissioner.

Becerra, a former congressman from the Los Angeles area, emerged as a candidate in recent days as others fell out of contention, including New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was backed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

His nomination solves one of the highest-stakes selections outside of the traditional four top cabinet positions, in part because Biden has placed a heavy emphasis on the coronavirus outbreak, which has set records for new cases, daily deaths and current hospitalizations over the past week.

Becerra would have a long list of priorities in tackling the pandemic, including expanding testing, improving access to personal protective equipment and distributing a Covid-19 vaccine.

While in Congress, Becerra supported a Medicare for All bill and as recently as 2017 spoke in favor of a single-payer health system. But a person familiar with Biden’s thinking said that Becerra is also prepared to work to protect Obamacare and add a public option, as Biden has said he intends to do.

As California attorney general, Becerra has led other states with Democratic attorneys general to file lawsuits defending the Affordable Care Act against the Trump administration efforts to dismantle it. That includes a case currently before the Supreme Court.

“We need someone with a lot of experience managing a large department,” Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana congressman and Biden adviser, told CNN on Monday. “His experience is unique and I think his life experience -- which we don’t talk about enough -- as a minority is going to be very important.”

Becerra took on the largest hospital system in Northern California, Sutter Health, and reached a $575 million settlement with it over price-gouging charges. Former Obama administration officials say they expect the incoming administration to put an increased focus on health-care antitrust enforcement, which they say is contributing to rising medical costs.

Health-care consultants expect the new administration to quickly roll back some changes the Trump administration made to the implementation of the ACA. The Biden team will likely put more money into making it easier to buy insurance on the ACA marketplace, improve advertising of open enrollment, revise rules around LGBTQ protections, loosen work-eligibility requirements and roll back the expanded use of short-term health insurance plans.

His selection ends a rollercoaster process that saw other top candidates fall from contention, including Murthy, who Biden has tapped as his next surgeon general.

The person familiar with Biden’s thinking said the most important consideration was Becerra’s history of fighting for the Affordable Care Act, first for its passage while he served in the House, and then as California attorney general.

The person pointed to Becerra’s record on health-related issues -- from lawsuits fighting vaping to joining with Louisiana’s Republican attorney general in August to lead a coalition of states urging the federal government to increase access to the Covid drug Remdesivir. Thateffort, and others, the person said, showed that Becerra is willing to find common ground with Republicans.

Biden has committed to building the most diverse administration ever and, if confirmed by the Senate, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. The move drew praise from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“As attorney general, Becerra led the charge to defend the Affordable Care Act, lower prescription drug costs, and protect immigrant families,” CHC Chair Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, said in a statement, adding that the choice came “in this moment of crisis with Covid-19 devastating Latino communities.”

People of color have disproportionately contracted the virus and faced racial disparities in their health care that have further compounded the effects of the pandemic.

— With assistance by Alexander Ruoff

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