Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Some Advocates Say AG Becerra Makes Sense as Biden’s Health Secretary

That President-elect Joe Biden wants Xavier Becerra to be part of his administration is not surprising, but choosing California’s top law enforcement official to be his Health Secretary raised a few eyebrows.

Becerra, the 62-year-old son of immigrants from Mexico, was rumored to be on Biden’s short list for Attorney General. But it wasn’t until recent days that he emerged as a serious contender to head up the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — a massive bureaucracy whose portfolio includes overseeing Medicare, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neither Biden nor Becerra have commented on reports that the attorney general is the choice for health secretary, but NPR and many other news organizations have confirmed it, and Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted his congratulations to Becerra.

A formal announcement could come any day.

“He’s almost ideally suited to lead that department,” said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “These days, health care is dominated by politics and by money. And you have to know how to navigate those waters to get stuff done.”

Altman and others noted Becerra’s 12 terms in Congress where he represented Los Angeles and became a staunch advocate for access to health care before then-Gov. Jerry Brown picked him to replace Attorney General Kamala Harris when she was elected to the U.S. Senate.

“He has probably been the number one defender of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under the Trump administration, and he’s done it well and articulately,” said Peter Lee of Covered California, which oversees the state’s implementation of the ACA. “But it doesn’t end there because he … also recognizes that health care in America has problems that need to be addressed, that go beyond what the Affordable Care Act alone.”

As attorney general, Becerra has sued the Trump Administration more than a hundred times over issues ranging from immigration to the environment and health care.

“He’s really been the leading national champion against the Trump administration in order to protect health care for Americans both in California and across the country,” said Mayra Alvarez, president of the Children’s Partnership in Los Angeles. “Reproductive health, health coverage, you name it. He was there front and center, pushing back on regulation changes and other efforts by the Trump Administration that would have taken away health care for some 20 million Americans.”

But Becerra’s tenure as attorney general has not been met with universal praise. Advocates of releasing personnel and use-of-force records of problematic police officers based on SB 1421, a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, have been extremely critical of Becerra’s unwillingness to fully comply with the law until forced to do so by the courts.

“He is no friend of government transparency,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

Snyder says Becerra’s position on SB 1421 was devoid of valid legal arguments. While stopping short of opposing the law, Becerra said the courts should weigh in on various challenges brought by law enforcement unions throughout the state. KQED joined the First Amendment Coalition’s lawsuit last year against the attorney general and state Department of Justice for access to those records.

“That’s just not a position that the state’s highest law enforcement officer should be taking if they want to directly oppose the law and they want to take the position that certain records simply don’t have to be released,” Snyder said.

Becerra was born in Sacramento in 1958 to parents who came to the U.S. from Mexico. In an interview with KQED’s Political Breakdown after he became attorney general, Becerra talked about how his parents influenced him.

“My dad couldn’t walk into a restaurant because of the signs that said ‘no dogs or Mexicans allowed’ even though he was a U.S. citizen! This is when he was a younger man. But you know, he never spoke one time in any of the times that I’ve had an opportunity with him ill about this country because it’s offered him so much and it let his four kids go on and have college or serve in the military,” Becerra said.

It seems like Becerra’s focus in public life and policy-making is in some ways a response to the injustices he witnessed, and continues to see directed at immigrants.

Becerra said he thinks his parents, and immigrant in the state “feel very proud that there’s an attorney general for the state of California that can absorb, learn and punch back.”

If confirmed, Becerra will take over HHS at a time when the pandemic is raging and the nation prepares to begin distributing vaccines that hopefully will bring an end to this era of death, despair and disagreement over masks and government shutdowns.

“The good news is in a year, the pandemic is going to be behind us and we should be focusing on issues of health disparities, focusing on how the CDC gets ramped up better. What do we do about the FDA? How do Medicare and Medicaid truly meet the needs of all Americans?” said Covered California’s Lee.

He’s hopeful that Becerra’s ascension to Health Secretary will usher in a new era of more equity in the delivery of health care in the United States.

“Having someone at the top of Health and Human Services that understands from experience that health care is defined all too often by the color of your skin and your zip code. That’s not the America we want to have,” Lee said.

If Becerra is confirmed, his replacement will be chosen by Newsom, who already has a plum appointment still to be made for the remainder of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s U.S. Senate term.

KQED’s Alex Emslie contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 KQED