Politics

HHS chief says turning the page on COVID-19 depends on Congress

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra marked his first year in office Friday by highlighting progress in the COVID-19 fight and demanding money from Congress to keep up the fight, signaling an effort to raise his profile in Year Two after a quiet start in which he ceded the pandemic spotlight to a White House task force and focused on comfort-zone topics like Obamacare instead.

Mr. Becerra highlighted over 200 million vaccinations and the availability of COVID-19 tests, vaccines and masks at no cost and pointed to President Biden’s effort to supersize health insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

The former congressman and California state attorney general said the year ahead will focus on turning to “the next page” in managing the virus, tackling the opioids epidemic and addressing mental health in the wake of pandemic shocks.

“We’re going to take on the issue of behavioral health,” he said in a press conference from HHS headquarters in Washington.

Mr. Becerra said his agency is “willing to listen” to Republicans who are demanding Mr. Biden find a way to pay for his request for over $20 billion to keep up the fight against the coronavirus.

HHS officials warn that efforts to secure contrast for shots at home and provide free testing, while donating vaccines to less developed countries around the globe, will be severely impaired without new funding.

“Please don’t let us fall behind. We’ve made too much progress,” Mr. Becerra told lawmakers. “You did too much good last year to let us fall short on COVID at a time when we are getting a grip on that virus would be deadly.”

Mr. Becerra said Congress needs to extend super-sized subsidies on Obamacare — they expire after this year — and should act on Mr. Biden’s call to slash drug prices as Capitol Hill considers legislation that would allow price negotiation through Medicare or caps on price hikes.

“We’re ready to launch,” Mr. Becerra said.

And he said his department will protect the rights of any transgender American who “feels besieged” by state laws that look to clamp down on things like “gender-affirming” surgery, such as one recently passed in Texas.

“You have rights, and you deserve to have those rights protected,” he said. “It is ridiculous that in the 21st century we are trying to exclude Americans.”

Low visibility

The secretary’s press conference was notable in part because it was happening at all. Mr. Becerra kept such a low profile over the last year that the Association of Health Care Journalists told him last fall to “come out of hiding.”

Mr. Becerra hasn’t been a presence in the regular White House briefings on COVID-19, even though he oversees agencies tasked with leading the fight, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health. He appeared in a task force meeting earlier this month, however, to help unveil Mr. Biden’s road map for combating the virus.

Some of his most prominent statements last year applied to record sign-ups on Obamacare websites after Mr. Biden increased taxpayer-funded subsidies and reopened enrollment for several months. Mr. Becerra played a key role, as California attorney general, in fighting a lawsuit driven by more conservative states against the 2010 health law during the Trump era.

During the Biden administration, the health journalists’ association sent Mr. Becerra a letter in November complaining that he hasn’t held the type of press availabilities held by his predecessor, Alex Azar. While he holds press conferences on trips around the country, the organization said, those are only helpful to reporters in the specific area.

“It’s as if Secretary Becerra has been in the witness protection program regarding two of the biggest HHS-related challenges facing the Biden administration: the COVID response and unbridled child immigration at the southern border,” said Paul Mango, who was the deputy chief of staff for policy for Mr. Azar and authored a book on Operation Warp Speed efforts to produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Part of this is likely due to this administration’s authoritarian impulse to centralize decision-making in the White House,  but part of it must be attributed to Becerra’s weak leadership profile,” Mr. Mango said. “In contrast, Secretary Azar put himself in the crosshairs of both of these issues, regardless of the potential for criticism.”

Mr. Becerra has pushed back on criticism about his lack of visibility, telling NBC News in late 2021 that results are what matter and that delivering on promises will inherently raise the agency’s profile.

The secretary has become more visible in recent months, including stops around the country to encourage vaccinations and support frontline workers.

Mr. Becerra said he plans to have a seat at the table as Ashish K. Jha, a well-known doctor and commentator on the pandemic, replaces Jeff Zients, a managerial expert, as Mr. Biden’s White House COVID-19 coordinator.

“We’re very much looking forward to working with him,” Mr. Becerra said. “We’re hoping, pretty soon, we get to sit down.”

Mr. Becerra said the pandemic fight will pivot away from case-counting toward a focus on hospital capacity and avoiding bad outcomes from the disease, while deploying treatments such as monoclonal antibodies and antiviral pills for those who contract the virus.

“We believe that we can turn the page to deal with COVID,” he said. 

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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