White face mask against blue background

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra faced the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions for his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. 

The HHS nominee told senators that if confirmed, confronting the pandemic will be at the top of his priorities, which included lowering prescription drug costs, expanding health insurance, and reducing racial disparities in the U.S. healthcare system. 

“To meet this moment, we need strong federal leadership,” Becerra reportedly said during the first hearing on his nomination. “I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to faithfully steward this agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives.”

Becerra currently serves as an attorney general for California and has previously represented the Los Angeles area for more than 20 years. Appearing before the Senate Health Committee, Becerra showed full support for President Biden’s goal of 100 million vaccine shots during his first 100 days, he also seconded increased efforts for coronavirus testing, DNA mapping to track dangerous mutations of the virus that may emerge, and reopening of businesses and schools.  

He also pledged to work on the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and specifically said that he would act to lower the cost of insulin, along with other prescription drugs. 

Insulin prices have gone through the roof. But it’s not the only medication for diabetes to have hurt patients. When Invokana was released in the United States, many doctors believed that it would make blood sugar management hassle-free. 

However, the drug caused a wide array of side effects, including ketoacidosis, kidney failure, and bone health problems. People who suffered from its serious side effects which were not declared on its warning label are now filing an Invokana lawsuit to file a case against the drug manufacturer. 

Lawmakers Divided On The HHS Pick

As a liberal politician-lawyer, Becerra faces opposition from many Republican senators, who questioned his lack of medical experience and support for abortion rights. 

And while many GOP senators portray the HHS nominee as unfit for the role, Democrats accuse the GOP of playing politics despite the urgency of responding to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the HELP committee, stated that Becerra “has fought against pharmaceutical companies, opioid manufacturers, tobacco companies and polluters, and for more affordable quality health care for every patient.”

“I have no doubt that, as secretary, he will put special interests on notice, patients and public health first, and put science, data and experts back in the driver’s seat,” she continued.

“We need to work with the Biden administration to quickly take additional steps on COVID relief and move swiftly to make sure they have their full team in place, including strong leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services who will work with us to end this pandemic and rebuild a stronger, fairer country.”

On the other hand, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., top Republican on the committee, said the level of expertise that the American people deserve” may exceed Becerra’s experience, adding, “Members of Congress do not become subject matter experts just because they are members of Congress, just because they sit on a committee that has health responsibilities.”

Other Republican senators, however, did not go for ideological confrontations, but focused on asking questions about home state concerns. Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., for instance, made use of the word “when” Becerra is confirmed, not “if.” Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murowski, R-Alaska, said she encourages the HHS pick to visit her state early. 

Becerra’s Track Record

During the hearing, Becerra stated how his being an attorney general helped him realize the importance of battling COVID-19 on the frontlines. 

“I worked with colleagues in other states — both Republicans and Democrats — to make COVID treatments more readily available. I am ready to work with you, our state and local partners across the government to get this right,” he added. 

Becerra also emphasized his commitment to have the hardest-hit minority communities to get inoculated quickly. 

Woman with a band-aid on her left arm

Although he is politically liberal, the 63 year-old HHS pick works his way towards problem-solving in a low-key fashion.

Still, Republican opposition has since grown louder prior to his nomination hearings. Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana released a letter to Biden, asking the president to withdraw the nomination, saying that Becerra is “unfit for any position of public trust.”

Opponents of abortion rights also said from the beginning that they would fight the nomination. 

Democrats brushed it aside, with Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden saying Republicans are just “flailing around.”

In a span of four years, Becerra has filed 124 lawsuits, challenging the Trump administration on environmental, immigration, and health care policies. 

If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to hold the position. As HHS secretary, he would play a crucial role in America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of nearly 500,000 individuals as of writing.  

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