Dec 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden announces health team

Biden with Xavier Becerra
In 2016, then-Vice President Biden walks with then-Rep. Xavier Becerra (right) to a meeting of the House Democratic caucus. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday announced the key members of his health team, tapping California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be Health and Human Services secretary and Harvard infectious disease expert Rochelle Walensky to be director of the CDC.

Why it matters: The team will immediately be in charge of addressing what will likely still be an out-of-control pandemic, including the government's efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

Other appointments:

  • Anthony Fauci, the current director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, will remain in his post and also serve as Biden's chief medical adviser.
  • Vivek Murthy has been nominated for surgeon general, the same role he served during the Obama administration between 2014 and 2017.
  • Marcella Nunez-Smith will serve as the COVID-19 Equity Task Force chair — a new role in the White House. Smith is a professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the founding director of Yale’s Equity Research and Innovation Center.
  • Jeff Zients will be coordinator of the COVID-19 response and counselor to the president. He previously provided leadership of the 2013 HealthCare.gov tech surge and oversight of the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ fuel-efficiency program.
  • Natalie Quillian will serve as deputy coordinator of the COVID-19 response. She previously coordinated the Obama administration’s interagency response to the opioid epidemic.

What they're saying: “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 so that the American people can get back to work, back to their lives, and back to their loved ones," Biden said in a statement.

Worth noting: If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the department. He's also been at the forefront of health care legal battles, most prominently over the future of the Affordable Care Act.

  • Becerra has led the effort by a group of 20 states and the District of Columbia in defending the ACA against a GOP lawsuit aiming to strike down the law. The case was argued in front of the Supreme Court last month.

Between the lines: The virus has disproportionately affected people of color, and Becerra's selection follows increasing pressure on Biden from the Latino community and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to diversity his cabinet, per NYT.

  • On the other hand, Becerra has little experience managing a large bureaucracy or in public health, per Politico.

The big picture: If a global pandemic and the future of the ACA weren't enough, the HHS secretary could end up in charge of executing most of Biden's health agenda, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican hands.

  • Becerra's legal background could prove useful in enacting a lawsuit-proof regulatory agenda.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Vivek Murthy's name.

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