Levine Fields Questions At Confirmation Hearing For HHS Job
Dr. Rachel Levine said she would continue to promote science and fact-based COVID-19 guidance if confirmed to be Assistant U.S. Secretary of Health during a hearing before a U.S. Senate committee Thursday. Pennsylvania’s former top health official would be the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate, and while the majority of questions were about the pandemic, Levine also fielded a series of questions that some groups decried as transphobic.
“I feel that I have a unique perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic, working as a state health official in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I know first hand of the importance of the collaboration and coordination between federal, state and local health officials. At its core, my career has been helping people live healthy lives. I’m both humbled by the opportunity and ready for the job.”
Levine led Pennsylvania’s coronavirus response efforts until President Joe Biden nominated her in January. In 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf nominated Levine as Pennsylvania Physician General. In that role, she focused on the opioid crisis and signed an order that allowed police officers and others to administer Naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can be administered to people who overdosed. Two years later, she was nominated and confirmed with bipartisan support as the state’s secretary of health.
“When COVID-19 came to our state, Dr. Levine’s leadership was marked by clear, science-based communication at her daily briefings; her early action, collaborative style and her calm were recognized by the medical community as well as leaders on both sides of the aisle,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who serves on the committee and introduced Levine at the hearing.
“As further evidence of her effectiveness and style of leadership, I would note Dr. Levine was confirmed three times to her prior positions in state government by Pennsylvania’s Republican majority,” Casey said. “I’m grateful for her willingness to continue her distinguished career in public service.”
The state’s testing strategy, the spread of the virus at nursing homes, and slow vaccine rollout drew sharp criticism from Senate Republicans during the hearing.
Pennsylvania is one of ten states where at least half of COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes. There have been more than 900,000 cases reported in the state and nearly 24,000 people have died from the virus.
“You cannot separate your role from your agency in a matter of weeks after your departure. Your state’s response has fallen short,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Committee. “I’m sure we will find similar problems in all 50 states and similar blame could be leveled on Congress. But you’re the nominee, and I hope you’ll address those questions as best you can.”
“In Pennsylvania, we did work to have a scientific, evidenced-based response to COVID-19. There were significant challenges, especially in the spring. We had challenges with testing, challenges with contact tracing, we had a lack of personal protective equipment as most other states did. ” Levine said, and added that she found the Biden administration’s guidelines to be effective. “I think the nation’s response has improved significantly.”
Levine also fielded questions from members of both parties about the mental health challenges many are facing during the pandemic, school reopening, as well as reducing health disparities for people of color and LGBT people.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican, asked Levine several questions about “genital mutilation” and hormone treatment among trans minors that drew criticism from Democrats on the committee.
“It is really critical to me that our nominees be treated with respect,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the committee. “And that our questions focus on their qualifications and the work ahead of us rather than ideological and harmful representations like those we heard from Senator Paul earlier.”
The LGBTQ Victory Institute, an advocacy group which works to advance LGBT officials to higher office, called Paul’s questioning transphobic.
“He explicitly attacked vulnerable trans youth for his own perceived political gain and it was a disgrace,” executive director Ruben Gonzales said in a statement. “Dr. Levine is an extremely qualified nominee whose experience can help America effectively tackle this pandemic, but he took this opportunity to give voice to hate groups instead.”
Other Republicans focused on pandemic-related public health questions. Dr. Vivek Murthy, who Biden nominated to be U.S. Surgeon General, was also questioned at Thursday’s hearing.
Correction: This story was updated at 9:58 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021 to reflect that Senator Rand Paul's questions were focused on minors.