Biden Chooses California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to Head HHS

Damian McNamara

December 07, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to run the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) under his new administration, according to a statement from the Biden-Harris transition team.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Becerra will face the challenge of overseeing the federal agency charged with protecting the health of all Americans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of the announcement, nearly 15 million Americans had tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 280,000 had died.

California Attorney General Xavier Becer (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Becerra served 12 terms in Congress, representing the Los Angeles area. Although his public health experience is limited, he served on the Congressional Ways and Means Committee overseeing health-related issues. Becerra is known as an advocate for the health and well-being of women in particular.

The American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association wrote a letter to Biden on December 3 urging him to select leaders with medical and healthcare expertise, in particular physicians.

"We believe that your administration and the country would be well-served by the appointment of qualified physicians to serve in key positions critical to advancing the health of our nation," they wrote. "Therefore, our organizations, which represent more than 400,000 front-line physicians practicing in the United States, write to request that you identify and appoint physicians to healthcare leadership positions within your administration."

Recent Advocacy

Becerra has worked with Republican attorneys general to lobby HHS to increase access to remdesivir to treat people with COVID-19.

As attorney general, Becerra filed more than 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration. In November, he also represented more than 20 states in arguments supporting the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court.

On December 4, Becerra joined with attorneys general from 23 states and the District of Columbia opposing a proposed rule from the outgoing Trump administration. The rule would deregulate HHS and "sunset" many agency provisions before Trump leaves office next month.

Becerra will be the first Latino appointed as HHS secretary, which furthers Biden's goal to create a diverse cabinet. Becerra has been attorney general of California since 2017, replacing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris when she became senator.

Biden's choice of Becerra was unexpected, according to The New York Times, and he was not the only candidate. Speculation was that Biden initially considered Vivek Murthy, MD, later chosen as the next US surgeon general, as well New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo.

A Huge Undertaking

As HHS secretary, Becerra would oversee a wide range of federal agencies, including the US Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The fiscal year 2021 budget proposed for HHS includes $94.5 billion in discretionary budget authority and $1.3 trillion in mandatory funding. Overall, HHS controls nearly one quarter of all federal expenditures and provides more grant money than all other federal agencies combined.

Becerra, 62, grew up in Sacramento, California. He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University.

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology and rheumatology. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.

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