Who Will Xavier Becerra Serve as Joe Biden’s HHS Secretary?

Xavier Becerra advocated Medicare for All and tough action against Big Pharma. Too bad the incoming Biden administration he’s set to be a part of as Health and Human Services head has refused to take on the health insurance industry.

Attorney general Xavier Becerra at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention in San Francisco, California. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

To run the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Joe Biden has selected a Democrat who has touted his support for Medicare for All and previously demanded the Obama administration take tough action against the pharmaceutical industry to lower the price of prescription drugs.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that Biden is nominating former congressman and current California attorney general Xavier Becerra to run HHS. The announcement comes after Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo abruptly dropped out of consideration for the job, following our report on her agreeing to health care lobbyists’ demands that she provide legal immunity to nursing home corporations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As recently as 2017, Becerra declared, “I’ve been a supporter of Medicare for All for the twenty-four years that I was in Congress,” and he said he would fight to create such a system in California, where it was considered in the legislature. As HHS secretary, he would be in a position to grant states waivers to create Medicare for All systems.

As HHS secretary, Becerra also will be in a position to take the action on drug prices that he previously urged the Obama administration to take — though it remains unclear whether Biden would support such a move.

Back in 2016, Becerra was one of the fifty-one House Democratic lawmakers who signed a letter calling on Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary to use so-called “march-in rights” to effectively rescind exclusive patents for medicines whose research and development was originally funded by government agencies.

“Too many families and providers are facing an extraordinary challenge from unreasonably priced pharmaceuticals,” the lawmakers wrote. “The failure to act in the past has undoubtedly sent an unfortunate signal that prices for federally-funded inventions can be set as high as a sick or dying consumer will pay.”

Between 2010 and 2016, the federal government invested more than $100 billion in research that led to new medicines, according to Bentley University researchers — but the Clinton administration gave a huge gift to pharmaceutical lobbyists in 1996 when it repealed a rule requiring that those medicines be offered to consumers at a reasonable price. The federal government, however, still has “march-in rights” to produce patented medicines when prices become exorbitant, according to the Congressional Research Service.

That’s exactly what Becerra and his colleagues were asking Obama’s administration to do — but Obama’s administration delivered yet another win for the pharmaceutical industry by rejecting the initiative. The HHS secretary at the time was Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was also reportedly under consideration for the position under Biden.

This year, Becerra was one of thirty-four state attorneys general to sign a letter demanding the federal government use march-in rights to make the early-onset COVID treatment remdesivir — whose research and development was sponsored by the government — more widely available and affordable to all.

“We urge the federal government to use its march-in rights to help increase the supply of this drug and lower the price so it is accessible to our state residents,” the attorneys general wrote in August.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Sludge reported that “unlike many of the leading Democrats who ran in the presidential primary, former Vice President Joe Biden has not embraced the use of march-in rights against pharmaceutical companies.”

As HHS secretary, Becerra will also be in a position to facilitate proposals to allow American pharmacists and wholesalers to import lower-priced FDA-approved medicines from other countries. Becerra voted for drug importation as a House lawmaker. Clinton’s HHS secretary, Donna Shalala, killed a drug importation plan in 2000 after a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed it through Congress.