As our nation confronts a global pandemic, we need a strong secretary of Health and Human Services who understands our health system not only from a policy perspective but also on a profoundly personal level. The secretary of Health and Human Services should be just as comfortable speaking to the leader of the NIH as he is a nurse in East LA or a senior on Medicare in my home state of Tennessee. That’s Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraBipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy Bottom line Overnight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all MORE and that’s why he is the right person to be secretary of Health and Human Services right now.
Leading the Department of Health and Human Services is daunting, even when things are going well. I know because I have seen it up close. As the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and later the Director of the White House Office of Health Reform and White House Deputy Chief of Staff, I worked both with and within the department and know its incredible power to serve the American people.
That work often brought me to Capitol Hill. While President Obama kindly gave me an office in the White House, he should have given me running shoes to get around Capitol Hill. As the leader of the administration’s effort to pass the Affordable Care Act, I met with hundreds of members of Congress, shuttling from office to office to discuss health policy and President Obama’s goals.
Some meetings were better than others.
I had detailed discussions about health care costs or what we needed to do to preserve and protect Medicare. In some meetings, I had to describe the difference between Medicare and Medicaid. Some members — on both sides of the aisle — had little interest in facts or science and focused only on the political battle of the day.
Xavier Becerra was different. Throughout his time in Congress, he stood out as a principled legislator with a deep understanding of the policy issues that were being discussed in Washington, and how they related to the people in California he was tasked to represent. He listened to anyone — be they a hospital administrator, health plan executive, physician or nurse, or an uninsured, low-income immigrant — who had thoughts about how to make health care better. If you had a good idea, he wanted to hear it, no matter who you were or where you came from.
Simply listening is rare in Washington, but Xavier listened, and then got to work and got things done.
A son of Mexican immigrants whose father made his living building roads and doing construction, Xavier Becerra knows how vital it is for all families to have access to quality health care. From a childhood in a one-bedroom home, he went on to earn two Stanford degrees and became one of the first members of Congress to sponsor the Family and Medical Leave Act. He represented one of the most diverse districts in the House of Representatives — a portion of Los Angeles with constituents who spoke more than two hundred languages — and fought to reduce disparities and improve health outcomes for people in communities of color. At home in California, he met seniors who struggled to pay their bills, even with Medicare’s help. In Washington, he helped pass laws to give them extra assistance.
When we worked to pass the Affordable Care Act, Xavier offered the kind of smart, steadfast leadership that was often lacking in the noise of the overheated debate. He listened to the facts, sought common ground, and stood up for the children, families, and seniors who needed help. He understood the details of the legislation and the difference they would make in people’s lives. And he not only fought to create the Affordable Care Act. As California attorney general, Xavier Becerra led the nation’s attorneys general in the fight to protect and defend the law and its life-saving access to health coverage and protections for Americans with preexisting conditions.
The COVID crisis is almost unimaginably complex. The Department of Health and Human Services requires a leader who can understand those complexities and the stakes for all Americans. But just as importantly, the department must be led by a person who can speak clearly and plainly to the American people. One who can be counted on to tell us what we know about the virus, what we don’t know, and what we can all do — together — to defeat it and protect public health. Xavier Becerra is that leader. We need him today — delay could cost us more lives lost. The Senate should confirm him now.
DeParle served as director of the Health Care Finance Administration, now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, during the Clinton administration and director of the White House Office of Health Reform during the Obama administration.