President-elect Biden picks California attorney general to lead HHS

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

As first reported by The New York Times, if confirmed as HHS secretary Becerra would take the reins amid a pandemic that has killed more than 280,000 Americans, overwhelming hospital ICUs and financially decimated many health systems and physician practices across the country.

He also would be taking over at a time when HHS is in the midst of overseeing rule changes over telehealth payment reimbursement, new hospital transparency rules and new rules aimed at driving down the price of pharmaceutical drugs. 

It's a post that Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive and lobbyist, has held since January 2018.

RELATED: See healthcare headlines involving California Attorney General Becerra

Becerra is no stranger to national healthcare headlines.

 As California attorney general, he was among a group of 23 state attorneys general leading lawsuits against the Trump administration over a rule the states say eliminated healthcare protections for transgender Americans. He also led an effort by 20 states and the District of Columbia in asking the Supreme Court to intervene early in an ongoing case that holds the Affordable Care Act’s fate in the balance. (They were denied.)

In 2019, hospital system Sutter Health reached a $575 million settlement with the state of California and a major union trust over charges by the state they drove up healthcare prices. The settlement also required Sutter Health to take several steps to end anticompetitive behavior including capping out-of-network costs and increasing transparency.

Last year, he led legal action that resulted in a nearly $70 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Endo Pharmaceuticals over allegations that they entered into pay-for-delay agreements.

Becerra also had a first for a California attorney general as he filed murder charges against a doctor for overprescribing opioids.

CDC chief nomination

Biden reportedly selected Rochelle Walensky, M.D., from Massachusetts General Hospital to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Walensky is the infectious disease chief at MGH and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

If nominated, Walensky would replace Robert Redfield, M.D., who has been a key figure on President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, which also included Azar. Redfield, a virologist and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine focused on HIV, was nominated to the post in March 2018. He replaced interim director Anne Schuchat, M.D. His predecessor in the post, Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., stepped down after reports she bought tobacco stock after taking her position at the agency, CNN reported.

In June, Walenksy led a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that found nearly two-thirds of Americans live in areas with little or no access to infectious disease specialists. It also found 80% of counties with the highest numbers of people diagnosed with the virus have below-average access to infectious disease physicians.

“The deficits in the [infectious diseases] workforce today have left us poorly prepared for the unprecedented demand ahead," Walensky said in a statement at the time.