President-elect Joe Biden announced this week that he had nominated Dr. Rachel Levine to be the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Levine would be the first openly transgender person to be confirmed to a federal appointment by the U.S. Senate. “Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic – no matter their ZIP code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability – and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” said Biden in a statement.
WHY IT MATTERS
Levine, a pediatrician who is also a professor at the Penn State College of Medicine, is currently Pennsylvania’s top health official. Prior to that, she served as the state’s physician general.
As Biden’s statement notes, Levine was confirmed for her positions three times by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania state legislature.
As Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, Levine has made addressing the state’s opioid crisis a primary focus of her work, writing a standing order prescription for the general public to have access to naloxone.
She also in 2019 said she would work with the legislature to legalize safe syringe programs, community-based prevention programs that can provide linkage to substance use disorder treatment; access to and disposal of sterile syringes and injection equipment; and vaccination, testing, and linkage to care and treatment for infectious diseases, among other services.
More recently, Pennsylvania became the first state to include information about sexual orientation or gender identity in its collection of COVID-19 patient data.
“We’ve had challenges in terms of the reporting, but we are adding to that reporting sexual orientation and gender identity to the (National Electronic Disease Surveillance) System,” Levine said at the time. “So, we would like as much data as possible about all the demographics of patients who have this disease.”
As LGBTQ+ Reporter Kate Sosin noted for The 19th, many of the anti-LGBTQ HHS rules enacted under the Trump administration may be challenging to roll back during a Biden presidency. In June 2020, HHS moved to roll back protections for trans people under the Affordable Care Act, sparking alarm for providers who worried LGBTQ people will avoid sharing their identities with clinicians out of fear of discrimination.
“Whenever you think that identifying yourself is going to cause problems for you or put you at risk, it creates a culture of fear,” said Heather Hitson, SOGI Project Manager at UCLA Health, this past June. “It’s absolutely what we don’t want.”
THE LARGER TREND
Levine’s nomination comes on the heels of a flurry of other healthcare appointments by the Biden administration.
In December, Biden appointed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the HHS. Becerra helped drive passage of the Affordable Care Act and led the defense of the law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2020. Biden also named Dr. Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, along with Dr. Rochelle Walensky as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, the president-elect tapped Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith as COVID-19 equity task force chair; former White House and Pentagon senior advisor Natalie Quillian as deputy coordinator of the COVID-19 response; and Jeff Zients for COVID-19 response coordinator. Back in 2013, Zients led the charge to fix the error-riddled Healthcare.gov website.
ON THE RECORD
“Dr. Rachel Levine is a remarkable public servant with the knowledge and experience to help us contain this pandemic, and protect and improve the health and well-being of the American people,” said Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a statement.
“President-elect Biden and I look forward to working with her to meet the unprecedented challenges facing Americans and rebuild our country in a way that lifts everyone up,” she said.