Health Care

Becerra eyeing bigger public role in wake of criticism

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra is reportedly eyeing a more prominent public role following criticism that he’s been an “invisible” leader during the pandemic.

CNN reported that Becerra will also have a “substantive” meeting with President Biden and appearances at White House briefings, neither of which he has done since being sworn in 11 months ago. The White House also announced Sunday that Becerra will travel to Minnesota with first lady Jill Biden later this week.

Health experts and former officials told The Hill last month that Becerra has taken a back seat in the COVID-19 response, ceding his authority to others, including the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said last month that Becerra was seemingly absent “when we need that person the most.”

“Of all the HHS secretaries we’ve had, at least in the last multiple administrations, we’ve never had one that was a ghost when it came to a public health crisis,” Topol told The Hill. “That’s what we have now: an invisible HHS secretary.”

News outlets including NBC News and Politico also published stories featuring stinging criticism of the HHS secretary over the past two months.

A White House official told The Hill Monday that Becerra has been an “invaluable partner” in the government’s COVID-19 response, who is in touch with the White House regularly.

“Last week, the President spoke directly with the Secretary and reiterated his support for him and his strong leadership,” the official said. “Anonymous gossip ignores the realities of the work we’ve done with HHS to vaccinate Americans, expand at-home testing, and increase therapeutics.”

Becerra’s spokesperson, Sarah Lovenheim, said in an email: “The Secretary is mission and results-focused.”

Critics have said confusing messaging and guidance from the administration on topics ranging from masks to booster shots to isolation time conveyed a lack of coordination that was partly due to Becerra’s low profile. 

Becerra acknowledged in an interview with CNN that the federal government’s communications surrounding COVID-19 have been confusing.

“The American people don’t have a lot of time to try to do the science and crunch the numbers,” Becerra told the outlet. “They expect the experts to give them the answer.” 

During his confirmation hearing, Republicans attempted to paint Becerra as unqualified for the job for having no background as a health professional.

Lovenheim defended the secretary last month, saying he is “tackling a wealth of issues, with COVID being the focus.” 

She added that Becerra “drives agency operations to support carrying out the mission, whether he’s coordinating our agencies to make booster doses accessible, authorizing the distribution of vaccines, or determining how to get masks in the hands of people in need of them.”

The Hill has reached out to HHS for comment.

Updated: 5:21 p.m.

Tags COVID-19 response Department of Health and Human Services Jill Biden Joe Biden Xavier Becerra

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