Healthcare organizations urge Biden's HHS nominee Becerra to hit ground running on COVID-19 response

While California Attorney General Xavier Becerra—reportedly President-elect Joe Biden's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—is best known on the national landscape for his work defending the Affordable Care Act (ACA), health industry leaders say he'll have to prioritize the pandemic above all else in the role.

In a statement, Rick Pollack, president of the American Hospital Association (AHA), commended Becerra for his efforts to lead the defense of the ACA against a legal challenge from red states and the Trump administration. But the most critical priority remains the pandemic response, he said.

"Nothing is more critical than the COVID-19 pandemic, and making sure hospitals, health systems and our heroic frontline caregivers have the resources and support they need to care for patients and win the battle against the virus," Pollack said.

RELATED: See healthcare headlines involving California Attorney General Becerra

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) CEO Matt Eyles echoed the sentiment in a statement, saying insurers are "eager to assist" the Biden administration in its pandemic response.

"We congratulate Attorney General Becerra for his nomination to lead HHS and look forward to working with the entire diverse, experienced and accomplished group of leaders nominated to and announced for key positions," Eyles said. “These leaders will face several critical national priorities, including overcoming the COVID-19 crisis, improving health equity, advancing health care affordability and access, improving quality of care, and ensuring the stability of markets," he said.

Groups say Becerra pick indicates access, healthcare costs as priorities

Industry officials said the selection of Becerra indicates support from the Biden administration for consumer access and fighting anti-competitive practices. 

Bruce Siegel, M.D., CEO of America's Essential Hospitals, said in a statement that Becerra "has an admirable track record as a champion for access to health care coverage."

The Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, an organization that includes AHA and AHIP alongside other health systems, companies and payer and provider organizations, highlighted another priority that will be a hot topic out of the gate: the Trump administration's much-maligned rebate rule.

HHS finalized a regulation last month that would eliminate the Part D safe harbor that protects drug rebates, a change that has drawn ire from insurers and pharmacy benefit managers.

“Attorney General Becerra has a demonstrated track record of standing up for consumers and CSRxP looks forward to working with him and the administration to advance market-based solutions to lower prescription drug prices, cut through drug companies’ blame game by pulling back the misguided Rebate Rule and hold Big Pharma accountable,” said CSRxP Executive Director Lauren Aronson in a statement.

“It will be particularly critical for the next HHS secretary to encourage greater prescription drug pricing transparency, foster generic and biosimilar competition and crack down on Big Pharma’s egregious price-gouging and anti-competitive practices," Aronson said.

RELATED: HHS finalizes rules to nix Part D rebate safe harbor, tie Part B prices to foreign countries

Aside from the ACA case, another notable healthcare case led by Becerra was against Sutter Health, in which the state alleged the healthcare system engaged in anticompetitive practices. The system agreed to a $575 million settlement in the case.

Matthew Cantor of Constantine Cannon, who worked closely with Becerra's office on the case, told Fierce Healthcare in an email interview that Becerra's nomination suggests the Biden administration "will put significant emphasis on ensuring that health care costs are controlled."

"I expect that, under Xavier Becerra, HHS will work with the Antitrust Division of the DOJ and FTC to enforce antitrust law in a manner that will keep health care costs in check," Cantor said. "And I think that AG Becerra’s experience with the Sutter Health matter—a matter that can serve as a paradigm for antitrust enforcement against hospitals with market power, will inform how AG Becerra will work with antitrust enforcement bodies once he is confirmed as HHS Secretary."