Dobbs decision, Medicare drug pricing: HHS Secy. on legal fights

From the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, to fostering more competition in healthcare, the US Department of Health and Human Services has been fighting plenty of battles during the Biden administration.

On the Dobbs decision, United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra tells Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani that "There was no doubt that there were going to be attacks on access to reproductive care going forward," so even before the ruling, the department was preparing to ensure a woman's right to healthcare.

One HHS goal has been increasing competition. Becerra says "you need competition, otherwise the gears start to grind to a halt and that's always bad for consumers." That's why the Biden administration, he says, wanted Medicare drug price negotiations.

There are reports that Becerra may leave the Biden administration to run for governor of California. Becerra says he'll stay in his role as long as President Joe Biden lets him and that "right now, the biggest difference I can make is as Secretary of Health and Human Services."


Watch the video above to hear what Becerra says about his "Food is Medicine" initiative.

For more expert insight and the latest market action, click here to watch this full episode.

This post was written by Stephanie Mikulich.

Video Transcript

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: The US Health Secretary Xavier Becerra has joined the administration at a time in the middle of the pandemic when the only looming legal and political threat was the overturning of the Affordable Care Act. Since then he has also taken on a number of other battles including the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the subsequent fallout of IVF and abortion care access as well as the Medicare drug pricing.

Joining me to talk about all of that is Secretary himself. Secretary, good to talk to you today. And Thank you so much for joining us. I'd love to jump right into this discussion about the many legal battles. I'm sure you didn't foresee them when you first joined the administration. So can you just talk to us about battling all of them right now? And how you see all of it playing out by the time we reach the election?

XAVIER BECERRA: Anjalee, well, first, thanks for having me. And secondly, you sort of can see around the corner every once in a while. And there was no doubt that there were going to be attacks on access to reproductive care going forward. So we were preparing well before the Dobbs decision came out to do everything we could to make sure a woman's right to access the care that she needed would be protected.

We have been continuing to marshal forward on the Affordable Care Act, understanding that it's always been under attack. It's gone before the Supreme Court two or three times. And so we're doing everything we can to fulfill the president's pledge to increase the number of Americans who had access to lower cost health care. And that's what we've been doing. And fortunately, things have worked very well.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I know also you've been battling on the Medicare drug pricing side. There have been a number of fronts that you've been battling corporate America. And there's already more interest from that side in other aspects of health care, like medical services. AI, for example, we know that's a big one that's coming on the horizon.

At the same time, what you're doing is also mirrored by the work at the FTC battling these companies and trying to break apart and create more competition. You hired a chief competition officer as well. Putting all of that together, what really is the end goal? How do we get to a point where all of these actually have impact for the American people without the threat of the loss of innervation? Do you see that coming to fruition?

XAVIER BECERRA: Well, Anjalee, in our system of economics, you need competition. Otherwise, the gears start to grind to a halt. And that's always bad for consumers when the gears aren't moving smoothly, because it costs everyone a lot of money. So we want to get that grinding sand out of the prescription drug pricing, so that Americans aren't paying any more than they need to. And they know they're paying way more than they should, because they look at the prices in even other countries in the world for the same drug, we're paying two or three times that amount.

And so fortunately, President Biden's efforts helped us get a new law that allows us for the first time to negotiate the price of drugs the most expensive drugs. And what we're doing in this very moment is negotiating with 10 companies on 10 of the 10 most expensive drugs to the Medicare program.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I know that part of the criticism when you first came to office had a lot to do with the fact that you were not in fact a doctor but were a lawyer instead. Seeing as how there is still a lot more to go in that space with the corporate interests coming in, practice of medicine, we've seen large players like Amazon, Walmart, and CVS take interest and also the AI question. Do you see a second term for the administration focusing on these and maybe setting some ground rules on how to play fairly in the market?

XAVIER BECERRA: Without a doubt. So much that we do at HHS isn't done in the lab, it's not done in the doctor's office, it is done oftentimes, unfortunately in court. Oftentimes, it's at the negotiating table. And while I think any physician can be as good a negotiator as anyone else, I think it doesn't hurt to be a practiced attorney to understand how to make sure you get the best price for Americans when it comes to their health care.

And so I think what you're going to find in a second Biden term is just the continued aggressive effort to make sure every American has access to lower cost health care. Whether it's prescription drugs, whether it's the health insurance policy, the president wants us to keep moving the needle on this. And clearly, we're now moving into artificial intelligence in health care. We're looking at the need for better security because of the cyber attacks that are coming upon health care providers. All that's going to require us to stay ahead of this and be able, as I said, before to look around the corner.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: You are also spearheading programs to ensure equity in the health space. One key one being food as medicine. I know we've talked about that in the past. I wonder part of the equation is the food side. And while you have brought on USDA as part of this conversation, I wonder what more needs to be done in order to ensure that the health care side of the equation isn't holding the bag and isn't paying for things that the food side of the equation really needs to be, without making it just another experimental taxpayer-funded program that lines the pockets of corporate America.

XAVIER BECERRA: Well, here is where it really helps to have a fabulous partner in Secretary Tom Vilsack at the Department of Agriculture, because we are working as partners, completely as partners, hand-in-glove, on this effort on food as medicine. USDA is indispensable as is HHS in trying to really move us away from this concept that the only way you can get healthy is by going to a doctor and getting a pill or some medicine or operation.

We do believe that food can be the best medicine that Americans can take to stay healthy. And having the partnership, not just with USDA and HHS, but it's a government-wide effort that we have under President Biden's leadership, we're trying to establish this as a platform, a baseline that everyone recognizes. Before you have to pop a pill, how about popping some berries or fruits or nuts or vegetables? Because that's going to probably keep you healthy a lot longer than constantly having to pop pills.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I know that you're also looking to November for potential changes, rumors that you might be thinking about exiting your role as the Health Department. I wonder if you feel like telling us today, whether or not you're seriously considering running for governor of California.

XAVIER BECERRA: President Biden, he gave me-- President Biden gave me this chance to lead the country on health care. It's a fabulous place. We've done an enormous amount. I am going to continue to do that as long as the president lets me. And something in the future might come-- by the way, the speculation always happens in an election year, even though this is speculation about a future election year.

What I can tell you, Anjalee, is that I am very proud that President Biden gave me the confidence to help lead the ship on health care. I'll do it as long as he lets me.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Well, I wonder about that, too. Considering the fact that we talked about all of this work and all the legal battles that are still pending, I can't believe, as a lawyer, you love to walk away from that just tell us. What might be interesting about moving to a different position if you thought about that?

XAVIER BECERRA: So I've always said when you're given a chance to be in a position where you can make a difference, why would you not take it? And right now, I'm making the biggest difference I think I could in 2024. And that's why in 2020 I made the decision to leave a fabulous position as the attorney general in California to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.

If America gives me a chance to make a big difference, I'm going to jump on it. And right now, the biggest difference I can make is as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: We'll have to leave it there. And thank you so much to Secretary Xavier Becerra, Head of the US Health Department, for joining us today.

XAVIER BECERRA: Thank you very much, Anjalee.