A nomination hearing for two top HHS officials Thursday appeared to go smoothly, with agreement among the nominees and lawmakers on the importance of improving access to telehealth and mental healthcare as well as working with states on Medicaid waivers.
The scene was a contrast to the sometimes heated questioning of HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who was eventually confirmed by a narrow margin.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon praised President Joe Biden's pick for CMS administrator, Chaquita Brooks-LaSure, and the nominee for HHS deputy secretary, Andrea Palm, as having "impeccable" backgrounds.
"My bottom line is these are two individuals who are extraordinarily qualified for these essential positions and would be ready to go on day one," he said.
The nominees are generally supported by health industry lobbies.
Republicans on the committee did not voice direct opposition to the nominations, although Palm did receive a brief bout of tense questioning about HHS oversight of unaccompanied immigrant minors who have come to the U.S. across the southern border.
The hearings did not delve into many policy specifics, sticking to general agreements to work toward expanding telehealth options for patients, especially in rural areas, among other topics. The nominees also discussed the need to improve the provider pipeline and lower the cost of prescription drugs as well as options for expanding Medicare and Medicaid, as the Biden administration has pledged.
Brooks-LaSure began her public service career at the Office of Management and Budget as a Medicaid analyst and went on to serve as deputy director for policy at the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight in the Obama administration and a director of coverage policy at HHS. Most recently, she was in the private sector as an Medicare and Medicaid policy consultant for Manatt Health, a division of the law firm Manatt.
She also has experience working with Becerra from her time working for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, of which Becerra was a member during his time as a Congressman.
If confirmed, she would be the first Black woman to lead the agency.
Brooks-LaSure told the committee her first priority would be working on pandemic response. "COVID-19 has put unbearable pressure on front-line healthcare workers, put vulnerable seniors and those with disabilities at risk and unmasked inequities that persist in our healthcare system," she said in her first remarks.
Palm is also a veteran of the Obama administration, having served then as acting assistant secretary at HHS. She would come to the role from leading the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Her robust efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic in that state led to frequent friction with its Republican-controlled legislature.
But she pledged Thursday to pursue bipartisan efforts. "When I was previously at HHS, then Secretary [Sylvia] Burwell joked that if there was an issue that was going to require bipartisan cooperation that the team should give it to me," Palm said in her opening statement. "She called my portfolio the common ground agenda. And if I have the honor of being confirmed and returning to HHS, that's what I'm bringing with me."
A committee vote to send the nominations to the full Senate has not yet been scheduled.
In addition to Becerra, another Biden HHS nominee has been confirmed by the Senate. Rachel Levine is now serving as assistant health secretary after a 52-48 Senate vote last month.