The U.S. Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
It did so by a 50-49 margin, with the vote playing out almost entirely along party lines. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican who voted to confirm Becerra.
Becerra — the first Latino HHS secretary — was originally nominated by President Joe Biden in early December. The former House Democrat saw the hearing for his confirmation repeatedly delayed, however, as Republicans tried to poke holes in his past record and lack of health care experience.
The 50-49 vote was the closest for any of Biden’s cabinet picks.
Several senior care organizations have already released congratulatory statements to Becerra for his confirmation, including the Partnership for Medicaid Home-Based Care (PMHC).
“[PMHC] congratulates Xavier Becerra in receiving confirmation from the Senate to serve as the Biden administration’s secretary of the department of health and human Services,” PMHC Chairman David Totaro said in a statement shared with Home Health Care News. “PMHC looks forward to working with Secretary Becerra to fulfill the Biden administration’s goal of expanding access to home- and community-based services by addressing the institutional bias within the Medicaid law and regulations.”
The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) similarly applauded the confirmation.
“Secretary Becerra’s commitment during his confirmation hearing to expanding care for those facing serious and life-limiting illness demonstrates real leadership on a timely and critical issue,” NHPCO President and CEO Edo Banach noted.
With the HHS secretary role solidified, attention will now turn to figuring out who is going to officially run the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Biden nominated Chiquita Brooks-LaSure — a former policy official who played a key role in guiding the Affordable Care Act through passage and implementation — in February.
Among the many areas where a Becerra HHS may different than its Trump-era predecessor is Medicare Advantage (MA).
Former HHS Secretary Alex Azar and former CMS Administrator Seema Verma were strong supporters of MA, pushing several policies and regulatory changes to boost enrollment while granting new flexibilities to health plans.
Generally, Democrats haven’t been as supportive of MA. Political insiders have even told Home Health Care News that some in party leadership have already preached the importance of keeping traditional Medicare and MA on equal footing.
The Better Medicare Alliance (BMA) hopes to see the MA-friendly policies of the last four years continue, however.
“Throughout our time together in Congress, I saw firsthand Secretary Becerra’s deep concern for improving health outcomes and reaching underserved communities with the care they need,” BMA President and CEO Allyson Y. Schwartz, a former member of Congress, said in a statement. “We aim to continue our dialogue with Secretary Becerra about the ways that Medicare Advantage is doing exactly that.”
This isn’t the first time that Becerra was in the spotlight this week.
On Monday, he also was part of a coalition of district and city attorneys in California that filed a lawsuit against Brookdale Senior Living Inc. (NYSE: BKD), alleging the submission of false nursing home staffing data to the federal government and improper resident discharges.
The lawsuit covers 10 Brookdale-operated skilled nursing facilities in California.
“We are holding Brookdale accountable for artificially increasing its profits by cutting corners when transferring or discharging its patients,” Becerra said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “It lured individuals to its facilities through false promises about providing the highest quality care.”
Brookdale has denied the allegations.