The California attorney general has waged legal battles to preserve the Affordable Care Act
President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, according to people familiar with the decision, selecting a legal advocate who has waged battles to preserve the Affordable Care Act.
Mr. Becerra led a coalition of 20 states and Washington, D.C., in a legal defense of the ACA after Republican-led states brought a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Obama-era health law. The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard arguments in the case. The Trump administration has asked the court to strike down swaths of the ACA.
Mr. Becerra, 62 years old, served in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2017. A spokeswoman for Mr. Becerra didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment.
A spokesman for the Biden transition team declined to comment.
The nominee will play a pivotal role in driving Mr. Biden’s health agenda and helping to shape the new administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The HHS secretary oversees the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr. Biden has also tapped Rochelle Walensky as the next director of the CDC, according to a person familiar with the decision. Dr. Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, will succeed Robert Redfield, who has led the CDC since 2018.
Mr. Becerra was the first Latino on the House Ways and Means Committee. He is the son of Mexican immigrants. He served as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and was the ranking member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.
Mr. Becerra was the first in his family to receive a four-year degree, majoring in economics at Stanford University. He earned a law degree from Stanford Law School.
In addition to working to preserve the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Becerra in July was among three state attorneys general who led a coalition suing to halt a Trump administration rule rolling back protections against discrimination for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Mr. Becerra emerged as a clear front-runner for the role late last week, according to a person familiar with the process. That person attributed Mr. Becerra’s rise to his record on health-care issues in California, including his bipartisan work to expand access to Covid-19 treatments and focus on anti-vaping initiatives among youth.
Mr. Biden was specifically impressed by an antitrust lawsuit Mr. Becerra filed against Sutter Health resulting in a $575 million settlement last year, the person said, as well as his personal story as the first in his family to graduate from college.
Although Mr. Becerra has endorsed Medicare for All, the single payer health-care plan championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, people familiar with the process said he supports Mr. Biden’s plan to expand health-care access through a public option.
The selection drew praise from former Obama administration officials who have championed the ACA. Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Mr. Becerra was a “stellar choice,” given his experience leading a large justice department, defending the ACA and as a legislator.
The fate of the Affordable Care Act will be an issue early on. The Supreme Court heard arguments Nov. 10 on a lawsuit from GOP-led states claiming that the law is no longer valid, because Congress zeroed out its penalty on people who don’t have health insurance. A decision is expected before June, which is typically the end of the court’s term.
Mr. Becerra would be tasked with implementing much of Mr. Biden’s health policy agenda, which includes a reboot of the Affordable Care Act, as well as combating a pandemic that has taken more than 282,000 lives in the U.S.
Mr. Biden is also expected to tap Jeffrey Zients, a former Obama administration economic adviser, for a senior White House role overseeing the administration’s coronavirus response, according to people familiar with the matter.
The selection of Mr. Becerra comes after deliberations for the role spilled into public view, a departure for what has otherwise been a tight-lipped transition process.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had initially been regarded as a leading candidate for HHS secretary and had been endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in a letter to Mr. Biden last week. But on Wednesday, a person close to Mr. Biden’s transition team played down reports of Ms. Lujan Grisham’s prospects and said she had instead been offered the role of interior secretary and had turned it down.
In a meeting Thursday with senior aides on Mr. Biden’s transition team, some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said they had been hurt by leaks they believe didn’t portray Ms. Lujan Grisham in a positive light. Mr. Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, expressed regret over the leaks.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus celebrated the news of Mr. Becerra’s nomination in a statement.
Mr. Becerra “has lived the American Dream, and he is a champion for working families, which we saw firsthand during his tenure as a leader in Congress,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D., Texas), the group’s chairman, said. He said the caucus encouraged Mr. Biden to appoint five Latinos to the cabinet.
Mr. Becerra is married to Dr. Carolina Reyes, and they have three daughters: Clarisa, Olivia and Natalia.