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Earlier this week, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. nominated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). If confirmed by Congress, Becerra would be the first Hispanic person to take charge of HHS.  

Based on his career as a Congressman and actions taken as AG of the most populated state, Becerra’s nomination would have major implications on how the next administration will tackle the deployment and potential expansion of the Affordable Care Act, enforce antitrust law among increasing industry consolidation, aim to lower the price of prescription drugs, and address health disparities for vulnerable populations.  

It’s the latter point that excites Elena Rios, MD, President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, (NHMA). Rios personally knows Becerra and his wife, Carolina Reyes, MD, an obstetrician for Valley Children’s Healthcare in Madera, California. Cut from a similar cloth, both Rios and Becerra were born to Mexican American parents, went to Stanford University in the 1970s, and were the first in their families to go to college. 

“A lot of us Latino students from that era have understood the opportunity that was given to us of being the first generation of students to go to college. We were given a real opportunity to have an elite education that not everyone had. And we want to give something back to our community,” Rios says. “[Becerra] has shown that he has the vision and leadership to help his community—and other vulnerable communities.”  

For Rios, Becerra’s ascension is perfect timing for her fellow Hispanics. She says his agency can bring together other Hispanic health care leaders and ensure they have a seat at the proverbial table, empower Latino health care workers and provide needed services for disadvantaged Hispanics across the country. “I’m very proud he was nominated, and other Hispanic health care leaders should be proud he is nominated,” she says. “Given how COVID has ravaged our communities, he will be able to help.”  

Reducing disparities 

Rios says Becerra’s upbringing means he has a deep understanding of the disparities that have plagued racial minorities. She holds hope that Becerra’s HHS will create programs that address social determinants of health—access to healthy food, better transportation, safe housing, and a more diverse lineup of health care providers in more places of access.  

“Many Hispanic and Black Americans are stuck by the cycle of poverty. They can’t they leave the areas where they live, are stuck in low-income jobs, have low education and limited health literacy, and low literacy in general,” she says.  

As AG of California, Becerra used the ACA’s impact in reducing disparities to defend it against legal challenges, including the most recent one that was argued to the Supreme Court. He also has held legal challenges aiming to uphold and defend health care and other services for children of undocumented and legal immigrants, Native Americans, low-income Americans, Medicaid beneficiaries and other disadvantaged communities.  

In total, Becerra sued the Trump administration 100 times, many times over health care-related policies. He also created an environmental justice bureau that studies the impact climate change and pollution are having on health on vulnerable populations. For some experts, putting an adversary of the Trump administration into this spot represents a clear signal from President-elect Biden.  

“I think this nomination is clearly in line with the Biden-Harris administration’s goals to uphold and fortify the Affordable Care Act, overhaul our immigration system, and clearly demonstrates that the Biden-Harris administration is preparing to take on the legal challenges facing these priorities, both in Congress and with the newly configured Supreme Court,” says Robert Hess III, a consultant based in Arizona.  

“HHS oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is in charge of unaccompanied minors – where Becerra’s experience as the son of a Mexican mother may be a strong indication of the Biden-Harris’ plans for immigration reform,” Hess adds.   

In a speech made alongside other members of the Biden health team and the President-elect, Becerra inferred his priorities, saying that “the work we do for our children, seniors and disabled. They will all stand in a Biden-Harris HHS.” Joining Becerra on Biden’s health team will be Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, Founding Director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center (ERIC) at the Yale School of Medicine, who will lead a taskforce on reducing health disparities. 

“The same disparities ingrained in our economy are our housing system, food system, our justice system and so many other areas of our society have conspired in this moment to create a grief gap that we cannot ignore,” Nunez-Smith said during the introduction of Biden’s health team