Biden's HHS Secretary: Possible Picks

December 2, 2020
Peter Wehrwein

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy appear to be the frontrunners for HHS secretary in the Biden administration.

Five governors have served as HHS secretary and two of the top candidates for HHS secretary in the Biden administration would make it six.

According to numerous media reports, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, J.D., and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, J.D., are among the finalists to head the sprawling healthcare department that includes the FDA, the CDC, CMS and the National Institutes of Health.

Other people in the running for the post include Vivek Murthy, M.D., MBA, who served as surgeon general during the latter part of the Obama administration and is co-chair of President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force, and Mandy Cohen, M.D., M.P.H., secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Lujan Grisham, who was on a shortlist to be Biden’s running mate and is co-chair of his transition team, may be the strongest possibility. Politico reported last week that she and Murthy are the two frontrunners.

On Monday, The Hill reported that the HHS pick had come down to Lujan Grisham, Murthy or Raimondo.

If either Lujan Grisham or Raimondo were to become HHS secretary, they would join Abraham Ribicoff, Otis Bowen, Tommy Thompson, Mike Leavitt and Kathleen Sebelius as secretaries who were governors before taking the reins at HHS or, as it was previously known, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, according to a recent Health Affairs blog post about past HHS secretaries, written by Richard Sorian. If Murthy gets the job, he would be the first HHS secretary in a Democratic administration who is a physician.

Lujan Grisham might have an edge over the other possible picks because she has some outside political support. A large majority of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus signed a letter this week that called on Biden to name her HHS secretary, The Hill reported.

Lujan Grisham was head of New Mexico’s State Department of Health from 2004 to 2007 and represented the state’s 1st Congressional District, which includes most of Albuquerque, from 2013 to 2019 before being elected governor of New Mexico. As governor, she has taken strong steps to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, including the imposition of a mask mandate that requires that they be worn in public except when the person is eating, drinking or exercising.

A company that she co-founded has been a source of some controversy and criticism of Lujan Grisham. Politico reported in 2018 that the company, called Delta Consulting Company, was paid more than $2 million to run the state’s high-risk pool between 2014 and 2017.

The news site reported, also in 2018, that she had underreported the amount of money she received from the Delta Consultig on her congressional financial disclosure forms. Politico’s story cites unnamed critics as saying that the state kept its high-risk pool open because of the clout of Lujan Grisham and her co-owner, Debbie Armstrong, a New Mexico state legislator. But — again, according to Politico — Lujan Grisham sold her 50% share in Delta Consulting Company prior to announcing her campaign for governor.

Murthy’s support of gun control measures and his framing of gun violence as a public health issue made him a controversial pick for the surgeon general’s position. About a year went by between his nomination and his eventual confirmation by the Senate in 2014 because of opposition from the National Rifle Association and the reluctance of some moderate Democrats to support him.

Murthy was fired by President Donald Trump in early 2017 before his four-year term as surgeon general was over.

The surgeon general’s position is largely advisory but ican serve as a platform to raise healthcare issues; the 1964 surgeon general’s report that connected smoking cigarettes to lung cancer, heart disease other illnesses is a prime example. Murthy addressed the opioid crisis when he was surgeon general with the Turn the Tide Rx campaign, which included a mass mailing to healthcare professionals. In late 2016, Facing Addiction in America, the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health was released

Prior to becoming surgeon general, Murthy was a strong supporter of the ACA, and he founded a physicians’ organization in 2009 to support the law at a time when the American Medical Association took a neutral stance on the Obama administration's signature healthcare reform, according to Vox.