Politics, Policy & Law
Obamacare advocate Becerra likely to focus on expanding Affordable Care Act, drug pricing as HHS chief
Pick signals Biden will lean on others to manage COVID response
President-elect Biden’s pick of California AG Xavier Becerra signals that he will lean on others to manage COVID response.
In selecting California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his HHS secretary nominee, President-elect Joe Biden has signaled his intention to follow through on campaign commitments to extending the Affordable Care Act and giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices.
The nomination suggests that Biden will lean heavily on other officials to manage his administration’s COVID-19 response.
In addition to Becerra, Biden announced that his public health team will include Rochelle Walensky, who will take on a high-profile position as CDC director; Vivek Murthy, who will reprise his role as surgeon general; and Jeff Zients, who will serve as coordinator of the COVID-19 Response and counselor to the president.
Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a prominent infectious disease physician and researcher and a skilled communicator. She will be tasked with turning around CDC’s reputation and the morale of its staff, which eroded during the Trump administration as a result of missteps on COVID-19 tests and the failure of its director to defend staff from political interference.
Becerra has been a fierce advocate for the Affordable Care Act, leading litigation against the Trump administration’s attempts to overturn the law. As California’s top lawyer, he has filed more than 100 lawsuits against the current administration.
An attorney and former member of Congress, Becerra’s contact with the biopharmaceutical industry has primarily been as an adversary in litigation or legislation.
He championed a California law that bars pay-for-delay agreements between brand and generic drug companies, defended the law against legal challenges, and negotiated a $70 million settlement of a pay-for-delay suit with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (NYSE:TEVA; Tel Aviv:TEVA), Endo International plc (NASDAQ:ENDP) and Teikoku Seiyaku Co. Ltd.
In a sign that he may agree with advocates who have pressed NIH to exercise its patent rights to lower drug prices, in August Becerra joined Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in a letter to U.S. government agencies requesting that they assert march-in rights to constrain the price Gilead Sciences Inc. (NASDAQ:GILD) charged for Veklury remdesivir.
In June, Becerra wrote to the acting FTC secretary asserting that the commission violated its own “best practices” when it approved the $63 billion acquisition of Allergan plc by AbbVie Inc. (NYSE:ABBV).
Becerra lacks the deep healthcare expertise or management experience previous presidents have sought in HHS secretaries, but he does have extensive Washington experience. During his 12 terms in Congress representing a district in Los Angeles, Calif., Becerra voted to give Medicare the authority to negotiate drug prices.