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HHS nominees Rachel Levine, Vivek Murthy face questions on COVID-19, opioids

Rachel Levine fielded questions about how the United States can improve its response to future health crises during her confirmation hearing as President Joe Biden's pick for assistant secretary for health. Pool Photo by Caroline Brehman/UPI
Rachel Levine fielded questions about how the United States can improve its response to future health crises during her confirmation hearing as President Joe Biden's pick for assistant secretary for health. Pool Photo by Caroline Brehman/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Lawmakers questioned two of President Joe Biden's top picks to lead the Department of Health and Human Services about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis during a joint confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Appearing before the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee, surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy and assistant secretary for health nominee Dr. Rachel Levine pledged to use their past experience in public health to combat current and future national health crises.

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Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., described the United States' COVID-19 response as the worst failure of domestic governance in U.S. history and asked how the nominees would assist the Biden administration in ensuring future pandemics were not equally mismanaged.

Levine, who currently serves as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the pandemic has revealed the necessity for health agencies at all levels to work closely together.

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"This pandemic has shown the importance of public health like nothing else possibly could," she said. "That includes local public health, state public health and federal public health and the collaboration and coordination between all of the different aspects of public health."

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked Murthy, who previously served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, how the Biden administration would seek to respond to hesitancy toward receiving the COVID-19 vaccine particularly in communities of color.

Murthy responded that vaccine hesitancy is not an issue solely experienced by racial minorities, but also a result of structural challenges such as a lack of access to healthcare, stating the government must ensure the presence of community health centers that can distribute the vaccines.

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"We have to be able to quickly stand up mobile units to bring the vaccine to where people are and we also have to ensure that we are establishing community vaccine centers strategically in locations that are hard for people to access vaccines," he said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., asked the nominees how the Biden administration would seek to respond to the opioid crisis the effects of which she noted have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Murthy said that in addition to placing an increased focus on school-based programs for prevention, the administration must increase access to care.

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"We still have more we can do to expand access to naloxone, we still can take steps to expand access to treatment, not only making medication-assisted treatment more available by integrating it into primary care but by making it easier also for clinicians to prescribe to their patients when they feel it is needed," he said.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., faced criticism for repeatedly asking Levine, the first openly transgender person nominated for federal office, about "genital mutilation" and questioning if Levine believes minors should be able to decide to "amputate their breasts or amputate their genitalia" or supports the government "intervening to override the parents' consent to give a child puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and/or amputation surgery of breasts and genitalia."

"Thank you very much for your interest in this question," Levine responded. "Transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care that have been developed. And if I'm fortunate enough to be confirmed as the assistant secretary of health I look forward to working with you and your office and coming to your office and discussing the particulars of the standards of care for transgender medicine."

Committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., thanked Levine for her response to what she described as "harmful misrepresentations" by Paul.

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