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Becerra confirmed to shepherd Biden's ambitious health plans

Xavier Becerra - Biden's cabinet pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Photo Date: June 2019

The Senate has confirmed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as President Joe Biden's health secretary.

Posted: Mar 18, 2021 2:17 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Thursday confirmed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as President Joe Biden's health secretary, filling a key position in the administration's coronavirus response and its ambitious push to lower drug costs, expand insurance coverage, and eliminate racial disparities in medical care.

The 50-49 largely party-line vote makes the 63-year-old Becerra the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services. The $1.4 trillion agency encompasses health insurance programs, drug safety and approvals, advanced medical research, substance abuse treatment, and the welfare of children, including hundreds of Central American migrants arriving daily at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Becerra has been California's attorney general since 2017. He sued the Trump administration 124 times on a range of policy issues, earning the ire of conservatives. Before that he represented a Los Angeles-area district in the U.S. House for 24 years. A lawyer, not a doctor, his main experience with the health care system came through helping to pass the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and defending it when Donald Trump was president.

“I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to be faithful stewards of an agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives,” Becerra said recently at his confirmation hearing. “I’m humbled by the task, and I’m ready for it.” He comes from a working-class Mexican American family; his father was in road construction and his mother was a secretary.

Leading Republicans have dismissed Becerra as unfit. But the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association supported his nomination. Two influential lobbying groups, representing the drug industry and health insurers, said after the vote that they look forward to a collaborative working relationship.

But to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, "the distinguishing feature of this nominee’s resume is not his expertise in health, medicine, or administration — that part of the resume is very brief. What stands out are Mr. Becerra’s commitment to partisan warfare and his far-left ideology.”

Becerra was reliably liberal in nearly a quarter-century in the House, but he was not seen as a left-wing firebrand. His issues were education, immigration and equal treatment for minorities. His profile was of a low-key insider who could work with Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said GOP arguments against Becerra “almost verge on the ridiculous.” Schumer said Republicans “complained loudly that he had no direct experience as a medical professional, even though Republicans voted in lockstep" to make pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar health secretary under President Donald Trump.

The Biden administration's COVID-19 response is already in high gear, directed out of the White House. Biden has signed his $1.9 trillion relief bill into law and agencies are making announcements almost daily. But having a health secretary in the mix will make a big difference, said Kathleen Sebelius, who led HHS during much of President Barack Obama's administration.

“Many of the assets that will be important to this effort are in HHS, and he'll have the key coordinating role within the department,” Sebelius said. “It adds a force multiplier and expertise to the efforts already under way.”

Core components of HHS are the boots on the ground of the coronavirus response.

The Food and Drug Administration oversees vaccines and treatments. Much of the underlying scientific and medical research comes from the National Institutes of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes the lead containing the spread of the virus and developing guidance to safely reopen schools and offices. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides insurance coverage for more than 1 in 3 Americans, including vulnerable seniors, as well as many children and low-income people.

Becerra also will also be the point man on Biden's health care agenda, which includes insurance for all Americans, deputizing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and tackling persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the health care system. Prescription drugs and health insurance will lead to major legislative battles. Democrats may have to go it alone and again use the special budget maneuver they relied on to muscle the COVID-19 relief bill through the Senate without Republican support.

Leslie Dach, a former senior adviser at HHS in the Obama administration, said Becerra appears poised to take advantage of a shift in the politics of health care.

“It’s a different time and it’s a time of tremendous opportunity in health care,” he said. “Whereas the Obama years were against a backdrop of tough politics and a (health care) law that still had to earn its stripes, he enters with a proven and popular law, an issue that won for the Democrats.” Dach now leads the advocacy group Protect Our Care, which pushes to expand coverage.

Becerra's Senate confirmation was a defeat for religious and social conservatives who worked to derail him over his support for abortion rights. During his confirmation hearings Becerra tried to play down the issue, acknowledging Americans have deeply held differences on abortion and assuring senators that he would follow the law. The law says abortion is legal but also that taxpayer money cannot be used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Republicans mostly closed ranks against Becerra. But during committee hearings several indicated a willingness to work with on prescription drugs, rural health care and other matters.

“Although there are issues where I strongly disagree with Mr. Becerra, I believe he merits confirmation as HHS secretary,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who did vote for him. "I look forward to working with the department to achieve bipartisan results on behalf of the American people.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 497790

Reported Deaths: 9917
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34102530
DeSoto31839398
Hinds31837622
Jackson24314377
Rankin21881388
Lee15427234
Madison14525279
Jones13772241
Forrest13412250
Lauderdale11937314
Lowndes10934185
Lamar10470135
Pearl River9431237
Lafayette8454138
Hancock7697126
Washington7365156
Oktibbeha7111129
Monroe6727174
Warren6642176
Pontotoc6609101
Neshoba6606205
Panola6460131
Marshall6386132
Bolivar6266145
Union596094
Pike5784152
Alcorn5633101
Lincoln5417134
George491879
Scott470998
Tippah465381
Prentiss464181
Leflore4627143
Itawamba4596104
Adams4570119
Tate4546109
Copiah445191
Simpson4421116
Wayne438572
Yazoo438586
Covington427394
Marion4216107
Sunflower4215104
Coahoma4115104
Leake407787
Newton380879
Grenada3692108
Stone358464
Tishomingo356391
Attala330289
Jasper328265
Winston313191
Clay306375
Chickasaw296767
Clarke290694
Calhoun277945
Holmes266987
Smith262550
Yalobusha232647
Tallahatchie225251
Walthall217763
Greene215548
Lawrence211140
Perry204755
Amite203954
Webster201645
Noxubee185340
Montgomery179056
Jefferson Davis170642
Carroll167438
Tunica158639
Benton147438
Kemper141241
Choctaw133026
Claiborne131237
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106227
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 813481

Reported Deaths: 15179
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1139971910
Mobile722271323
Madison51970686
Shelby37279341
Baldwin37069540
Tuscaloosa34934599
Montgomery33953725
Lee23142240
Calhoun22142470
Morgan20639372
Etowah19758496
Marshall18245300
Houston17302405
St. Clair15912337
Cullman15306290
Limestone15202198
Elmore15075284
Lauderdale14143294
Talladega13715272
DeKalb12569259
Walker11085366
Blount10094174
Autauga9893146
Jackson9789180
Coffee9182189
Dale8859181
Colbert8789200
Tallapoosa7044195
Escambia6732127
Covington6682179
Chilton6587160
Russell625958
Franklin5930105
Chambers5559142
Marion4955126
Dallas4882199
Clarke472782
Pike4719105
Geneva4564126
Winston4473101
Lawrence4264117
Bibb421686
Barbour355475
Marengo334089
Monroe330262
Randolph327063
Butler324794
Pickens313882
Henry310965
Hale309187
Cherokee299957
Fayette290679
Washington250951
Cleburne246958
Crenshaw243575
Clay240367
Macon230562
Lamar215846
Conecuh185652
Coosa178538
Lowndes173761
Wilcox167438
Bullock151744
Perry138040
Sumter131038
Greene125544
Choctaw86927
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Feels Like: 70°
Columbus
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Oxford
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Starkville
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A cold front passing through our area overnight will bring into our area some of the coolest temperatures of the season so far. We will see most of the highs this weekend only in the upper 60s to lower 70s. While overnight lows will drop off down into the 40s Saturday night.
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