California Attorney General Xavier Becerra seems likely to win confirmation as the next HHS secretary following his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.
For the second day in a row, senators on both sides of the aisle asked Becerra a series of policy-oriented questions that aimed to address the concerns of their constituents and special interest groups. Republicans had teased that they would try to sink his nomination by painting him as inexperienced and overly supportive of Medicare-for-All proposals. But the committee's GOP members hardly tagged Becerra, lobbing mild criticisms and hunting for clarifications on issues like single-payer healthcare, abortion and religious freedom. It was mostly a repeat of yesterday's confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, with committee members and Becerra himself often speaking as if he would be confirmed.
"If I was a betting man, I'd bet that you've got the votes to be approved," said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
During the proceedings, Becerra hit on a number of issues that could impact insurers, providers and drugmakers.
1. Medicare Advantage
Becerra expressed support for Medicare Advantage, saying it made it easier to create wraparound services for seniors. But he said that under his leadership, HHS would ensure there was a level playing field between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage to ensure taxpayer money gets spent effectively.
"The growing imbalance between the programs concerns me greatly," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
2. Drug pricing
During the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked Becerra if President Joe Biden would sign onto a bipartisan drug pricing bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). He argued it would be easier to pass under majority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) than it would have been under Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"Profit shouldn't be the reason that we're trying to come up with life-saving medication," Becerra said after one senator bemoaned drugmakers' unwillingness to manufacture certain drugs.
Becerra threw his support behind telehealth, emphasizing the need to improve broadband infrastructure to ensure access to telehealth services across urban and rural areas. But he didn't talk about specific policy or reimbursement changes.
"I don't think we're going back to the old days when it comes to telehealth," Becerra said.
4. Religious Freedom
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and other conservatives hit Becerra on abortion and religious freedom litigation. Becerra said it was his obligation to defend California's laws and would be required to recuse himself from cases he handled as California's attorney general.