HHS secretary nominee Xavier Becerra on Tuesday threw his support behind efforts to improve access to care, aligning himself with President Joe Biden’s healthcare agenda.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the current California attorney general focused on issues affecting the healthcare industry, including coverage expansion, access to care and provider funding. He is also slated to appear before the full Senate on Wednesday.
Several senators asked Becerra how he planned to address provider shortages that have limited underserved communities’ ability to get the care they need. Becerra leaned heavily on efforts to increase the pipeline of providers, including Congress’ recent decision to fund 1,000 more graduate medical education slots. He also supported the growth of Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and the National Health Service Corps to improve access to care.
But the HHS nominee never mentioned increasing the number of work visas for providers, expanding providers’ scope of practice, relying more on non-physician providers like nurse practitioners or physicians’ assistants for primary care and other services or other ways to boost provider access.
When it comes to insurance access, Becerra supported the new open enrollment period for healthcare exchanges as well as a Medicare buy-in program. He expressed concern about the lack of affordable coverage options for people without insurance who don’t qualify for marketplace subsidies. He suggested more people should get larger tax credits to purchase coverage.
Becerra didn’t answer how he would address the dwindling Medicare trust fund as HHS secretary but said the general funds could be used to pay for Medicare expansion when Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) asked Becerra about its effect on the trust fund.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) worried that many providers are struggling with the difficulty and costs of hiring additional staff, improving facilities and obtaining personal protective equipment during the pandemic.
“I was astonished that in a $1.9 trillion COVID package, the administration did not include any money for a provider relief fund,” she said. Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) are calling for an additional $35 billion in provider relief funding.
Becerra said he would ensure that struggling providers get the money they need, whether through the provider relief fund or by redirecting other financial resources to the providers hardest hit by the pandemic.