Frontrunners for Biden health team revealed as progressives cry foul over candidates’ business backgrounds

Graig Graziosi
<p>Joe Biden is expected to pick key members of his health team in the coming weeks</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Biden is expected to pick key members of his health team in the coming weeks

(AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Biden is expected to announce who will lead his administration's Department of Health and Human Services, a significant position in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

The Associated Press reported that New Mexico's Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham was expected to be a frontrunner for the position, but it appears she is no longer being considered. Sources familiar with the selection process told the AP that Ms Lujan Grisham rejected an offer from Mr Biden's staff to join the administration as the Interior Secretary. As a result, she is not being considered for other substantive administration positions.

It was not immediately clear why Ms Lujan Grisham turned the role down.

Former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, who served in the position under President George W Bush, told the AP that the role required someone with "the confidence of the president, the ability to operate collaboratively across the government, credibility within the health care world, and the capacity to work with the states."

Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island, is among those likely being considered for the position. She was vetted over the summer as a potential running mate for Mr Biden. Politico reported that Ms Raimondo is being considered for the position in part due to her background in management.

If selected, she is likely to face intense pushback from progressive Democrats, as she has publicly opposed Medicare For All and previously worked as a venture capitalist. Ms Raimondo has proposed further privatizing Medicaid.

Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, said selecting Ms Raimondo would be a signal from the Biden administration that it was unconcerned with the policy priorities of progressive Democrats.

"The best thing one can say about Gina Raimondo is she is not Rahm Emanuel,” said Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “But just like Emanuel, a Cabinet appointment for Raimondo would end any era of good feelings within the Democratic Party."

Mr Biden may also face criticism for filling the role with a white woman after promising to elevate people of colour to places of prominence within his administration.

More than a dozen Latino lawmakers signed a letter urging Mr Biden to select Ms Lujan Grisham for the position. Rep. Raul Ruiz was among the signatories.

“I know she would do an amazing job,” he told Politico. “And having the first Latina HHS Secretary during this pandemic would send a very positive message to everyone in our country.”

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the co-chair of Mr Biden's coronavirus task force, is also in consideration for the job. Sources close to the process speaking with Politico said it is unlikely he will be picked over Ms Raimondo as he does not have the same management experience that she has.

In addition to naming a health secretary, Mr Biden is also expected to select the individual he wants leading the White House's coronavirus response.

That position would include not only managing the ongoing crisis, but also overseeing next year's vaccine rollout, which will be a massive undertaking requiring coordination between private businesses, the states, the federal government and the US military.

Health policy experts familiar with the candidates Democrats are considering believe Jeff Zients, a business executive named to Mr Biden's transition team, is the front-runner for the job.

Like Ms Raimondo, Mr Zients is likely to generate pushback from progressive Democrats for his ties to Wall Street.

“Biden needs to hear from fewer wannabe Warren Buffetts, and more from people with their finger on the pulse of middle America,” Mr Hauser told Bloomberg. “We’re going to make an argument that his mindset is at odds with Biden’s stated goal of an FDR-style administration. We’re going to make this case publicly, and put it before voters and activists and leaders of progressive organizations.”

A spokesman for Mr Biden praised Mr Zient's management expertise.

“Jeff Zients is a management expert, known for fixing HealthCare.gov and leading the effort on the fiduciary rule in the Obama-Biden administration,” the spokesman said. “He joined the transition to think through the best systems and processes to ensure a future Biden administration has the tools needed to address the crises facing the American people.”

The heads of both the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will change as well.

Dr Julie Morita, a prominent executive at the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is under consideration to run the CDC. She spent 20 years working in Chicago's public health department.

Dr Joshua Sarfstein, Maryland's former health secretary, and Dr Luciana Borio, a member of Mr Biden's coronavirus advisory board and formerly worked in the FDA and National Security Council, are both under consideration to lead the FDA.

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