Health advocacy groups congratulated new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on his confirmation Thursday afternoon, urging him to use the position to advance digital health initiatives and continue responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate confirmed Becerra, who will become the first Latino person to hold the cabinet position, in a 50 to 49 vote on Thursday. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was the only Republican to vote for him.
The confirmation took longer, and the vote was closer, than many expected. But right away, even as they congratulated him, healthcare technology stakeholders called on him to support innovation across the industry.
“Secretary Becerra’s support for digital health tools and services’ increased use will be critical as we continue the fight against COVID-19 and to bring the best healthcare available to all Americans, particularly those in underserved communities,” said Connected Health Initiative executive director Morgan Reed in a statement.
“CHI looks forward to working with Secretary Becerra and HHS to bring the American healthcare system into the 21st century,” he added.
WHY IT MATTERS
During his confirmation hearings in February, Becerra signaled his support for telemedicine and other digital health tools.
“If we don’t learn from COVID how telehealth can help save lives, then we’re in trouble,” he said.
The American Telemedicine Association cheered the confirmation, reiterating its support for a wide range of policies aimed at expanding access to digital health under the Biden administration.
“There are many challenges ahead in creating more equitable, accessible and efficient care but we, like Secretary Becerra, believe that telehealth and virtual care services can offer critical solutions to deliver care whenever and wherever needed,” said ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson in a statement.
“We also support the expansion of broadband access to help close the ‘digital divide’ to address the inequities that currently exist in healthcare,” Johnson added.
The ATA has urged the 117th Congress and the new administration to:
- Permanently remove the geographic and originating site barriers in statute.
- Remove provisions in law that mandate a prior in-person relationship between practitioner and patient for telehealth delivery of care or reimbursement.
- Allow state licensing boards and practitioners to determine the appropriate standards of care for patients.
- Enhance HHS authority to determine appropriate telehealth services and providers.
- Ensure Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics can furnish telehealth and receive equitable reimbursement.
- Make permanent HHS’ temporary waiver authority for future emergencies.
- Support existing fraud, waste and abuse resources within HHS, including the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program.
The United States of Care also joined in the chorus, emphasizing the disparities in healthcare that have been both revealed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
“Our nation faces enormous health care challenges requiring steady leadership. These include helping our country heal and recover from a once-in-a-century pandemic, a sharpened focus on health inequities, and people’s lack of health security, including when one loses or changes jobs,” said USC executive director Emily Barson.
“We believe Secretary Becerra’s experience at both the federal and state levels working to advance and protect access to affordable healthcare will be a tremendous asset in this position,” Barson added.
However, not everyone was pleased with Becerra’s advancement.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Richard Burr, R-N.C., was among the senators who voted against Becerra, citing his concerns over the California attorney general’s experience.
“The Department of Health and Human Services deals every day with our nation’s most difficult and complex challenges,” said Burr in a statement. “Leading a federal agency of this size and scope requires sound subject matter expertise and experience navigating comparable organizations. I’m concerned that Mr. Becerra lacks the experience needed to address these critical issues during this unprecedented moment.”
“It is my hope that Mr. Becerra will listen to and work with both sides of the aisle as we begin to address these public health challenges,” Burr added.
THE LARGER TREND
Biden’s health positions have slowly, but surely, begun to fill over the last few months, with a few notable exceptions.
Becerra’s colleagues at HHS, Drs. Vivek Murthy and Rachel Levine, will now face their own Senate floor vote after their nominations advanced out of committee this week.
Both nominees enjoyed bipartisan (although not unanimous) support from committee members, suggesting that their floor votes will also be favorable.
Meanwhile, new National Coordinator for Health IT Micky Tripathi offered an overview this past week of ONC’s future priorities, noting that while “job number one is COVID-19 right now,” the agency would be prioritizing public health data infrastructure and policies that embrace “health equity by design” in the months ahead.
ON THE RECORD
“We further congratulate Secretary Becerra on becoming the nation’s first Latino HHS Secretary. His confirmation comes at a pivotal moment in the pandemic, which has taken a disproportionately devastating toll on communities of color,” said United States of Care’s Barson in that group’s statement.
“We look forward to working with Secretary Becerra and the Biden-Harris Administration to build a better, more equitable health care system in the wake of COVID-19.”
Healthcare Everywhere, Every Day
The onset of the COVID-19 crisis a year ago, with its widespread quarantines and lockdowns, offered telemedicine its moment to shine after years of under-fulfilled promise. As states look toward a post-pandemic world it’s time to build on that promise.