Appearing before supportive Democrats and skeptical Republicans, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra defended President Joe Biden’s budget in front of Senate Appropriations and Finance panels on March 22.
Biden’s HHS budget plan has been widely discussed since the White House announced a strategy to extend Medicare’s solvency beyond 2050 by raising the Medicare tax rate from 3.8 percent to 5 percent on people whose incomes exceed $400,000 per year, including capital gains and salaries.
On the two-year anniversary of Becerra starting his tenure as HHS Secretary, he testified before the Senate Finance Committee in the morning and then the Senate Labor HHS Appropriations Subcommittee in the afternoon.
COVID-19 was frequently discussed during the subcommittee hearing.
Before delivering her opening remarks, Sen. Patty Murray (D – Wash.) reminded attendees of the “COVID-19 safety protocols in place today.”
“The committee is now returning to requiring in-person attendance by witnesses and members who wish to make statements or ask questions,” Murray said. “However, social distancing remains in effect and those who have not been fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks.”
Murray then praised the budget as “a roadmap on progress for years to come.”
Becerra said: "The FY 2024 budget proposes $144 billion dollars in discretionary funding and $1.7 trillion dollars in mandatory funding to continue the work of the department and make major investments in several critical areas.”
On Feb. 11, he noted, HHS renewed the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) “for what we expect will be the final time.”
Becerra boasted that “the Administration effectively implemented the largest adult vaccination program in U.S. history, with nearly 270 million Americans receiving at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. Second, we made available to the American public 1.16 billion COVID tests at no cost. And we were able to provide over 23 million therapeutic courses of treatment to Americans."
Becerra added: “According to the Commonwealth Fund, two years of COVID vaccinations saved over 3 million lives, in addition to preventing more than 18.5 million hospitalizations. The FY 2024 budget prioritizes preparedness for the next health crisis."
The budget includes $20 billion in mandatory funding, available over five years, for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and NIH “to support the president’s plan to transform the nation’s capabilities to prepare for, and respond rapidly and effectively to, future pandemics and other biological threats.”
Becerra also noted that the budget “covers two million adults in states who don’t get coverage through Medicaid and extends tax credits that make health care more affordable for more Americans.”
The budget also “caps the price of insulin at $35 for everyone, negotiates a fair price for more prescription drugs, and strengthens Medicare for the next generation.”
Republican senators on the Finance and Appropriations panels believe that the proposals would deter pharmaceutical development.
“The budget that you brought to us is full of things that get in the way of research,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said. “It would prevent new drugs and therapies from coming to market. It would weaken (intellectual property) protections. It would expand big government.”
Sen. Katie Britt (R–Ala.) was among the Senate Republicans in both committees who pressed Becerra about reports of unaccompanied minor refugees getting paired with sponsors who send them to work in deplorable conditions.
Last month, the Biden administration announced that it is forming a new task force to stop the exploitation of migrant children for labor in the United States.
Becerra has faced scrutiny about concerns that migrant children have been dismissed out of federal custody too quickly and into situations where they are vulnerable to becoming child labor victims.
Minors who arrive in the United States cannot live in Department of Homeland Security facilities with adults. They are required to be placed with a sponsor no later than three days after entering the country.
“The (Unaccompanied Alien Children) program is plagued by deficiencies, poor management, when combined with this administration’s reckless and irresponsible policies encourage illegal immigration and, I believe, put the lives and well-being of children at risk,” Britt said.
All sponsors are verified, and around 90 percent of minor refugees who are unaccompanied by adults are placed with parents or other family members, Becerra said.
“It’s not the people at HHS; it’s the management and policy,” Britt said.
Next week, Becerra is scheduled to testify in front of the GOP-controlled House at hearings in the Ways and Means and Appropriations committee and the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee.