Xavier Becerra headshot
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra

Thursday’s news of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s confirmation as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was met with enthusiasm and pleas for pandemic-related federal resources from the senior living industry.

The Senate narrowly confirmed Becerra, the son of Mexican immigrants, as the first Latino HHS secretary in a 50–49 vote. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) joined Democrats in approving his nomination.

Becerra’s top task will be combatting COVID-19. In his nomination, the Biden team noted that Becerra played a significant role in passage of the Affordable Care Act and other initiatives that align with key concerns of the long-term care industry.

He will lead a department that includes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Administration for Community Living, which includes the Administration on Aging; and the Food and Drug Administration, among many other agencies and offices.

Senior living industry experts said their focus will be on sharing with Becerra the critical need for federal resources during the ongoing pandemic.

“We are continuing to reach out to new members of the Biden administration, including Secretary Becerra, to ensure we continue to bring to light the tremendous impact the pandemic has had on senior living communities, residents and staff,” Argentum President and CEO James Balda told McKnight’s Senior Living.

Senior living providers have lost more than $15.4 billion due to the pandemic, according to calculations from Argentum. Balda conveyed that figure to Becerra in a letter on Thursday, asking that senior living operators be “urgently prioritized” for distributions from the Provider Relief Fund.

David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association, said senior living has been on the front lines of the COVID crisis and has not received enough government relief relative to the “enormous cost and loss incurred.”

“We are hopeful that the secretary will make additional funds from the Provider Relief Fund available to senior living to cover losses and expenses in the second half of 2020, as he indicated was his top priority during his confirmation hearings in response to a question from Sen. Susan Collins,” Schless said.

LeadingAge previously shared that it welcomed Becerra’s nomination and considered him a “friend of long-term care causes.”

“His advocacy for access to healthcare and his interest in aging and long-term care services during his 10 years in the House of Representatives point to the attention he is likely to give to the needs of older adults during this pandemic and beyond,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said. 

A spokesperson for the National Center for Assisted Living said that given the “tremendous tragedy and challenges” of the past year, the association hopes to work with Becerra on “ensuring that long-term care is regarded as a pivotal part of our healthcare system and prioritized for ongoing resources in order to battle COVID-19.”

“When we get through this, we hope to have a national discussion with HHS and other stakeholders about how we can learn from this experience and properly support long-term care facilities as we prepare for a rapidly growing elderly population,” NCAL said.

As California’s attorney general, Becerra’s has been involved in several senior living-related cases, not always siding with operators. Just this week, he was part of a coalition that filed a lawsuit accusing Brookdale Senior Living, the country’s largest senior living company, of lying to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to inflate the star ratings awarded to some of its California skilled nursing facilities and of improperly handling discharges and transfers from SNFs.

In February, Becerra announced that a nurse providing care to a former California assisted living resident had been charged with felony elder abuse for failing to properly assess the woman’s failing health, ultimately leading to her death.

Earlier this year, Becerra elevated and expanded The Golden State’s efforts to uncover and pursue fraud, abuse and neglect cases by announcing additional resources for the California Department of Justice Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, making it a full-fledged division.

In 2019, he said that his office would “vigorously go after facilities that violate the law and endanger the residents they are charged to care for” after the owner of a senior living community was found guilty of elder abuse and involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of a resident with dementia who was struck and killed by a car while he was out walking or jogging.

Becerra also was one of five attorneys general filing a lawsuit in 2019 challenging a federal rule they said targeted working immigrants and their families by creating unnecessary new barriers to lawful admission to the United States. The “public charge” rule potentially affected older adults and their caregivers, according to one advocacy group.

He also has supported California’s aid-in-dying law, which lets doctors prescribe lethal medications to patients who are determined to have less than six months to live.