Zients, Murthy tapped to head up Biden’s Covid-19 response

Zients, Murthy tapped to head up Biden’s Covid-19 response

Despite warnings from the CDC, air travel soared over Thanksgiving week — and even more people are expected to travel in the coming weeks ahead of the holidays. POLITICO’s Sam Mintz breaks down what we know — and don’t know — about the safety of airplanes during the pandemic.

“He’s essentially playing that role with the transition now,” said one source close to Biden. “Jeff isn’t a health care guru, and he’s the first to say that, but he’s a manager and a trusted player without an agenda other than outcomes. He has all the attributes you need to manage this across the board — a rare skill set in Washington.”

Yet Biden’s selection of Zients may raise further concerns about the roster of white men picked to run policy in the White House at a time when the incoming administration is already under pressure to diversify its leadership. On Thursday, the Biden transition team announced Brian Deese will serve as the director of the National Economic Council, and Jake Sullivan has already been tapped as Biden’s national security adviser.

The plans call for teaming Zients, 54, with health experts, particularly Murthy, who will have significantly enhanced responsibilities compared to his first stint as surgeon general from 2013 to 2017. At that time, Murthy focused heavily on combating the opioid epidemic, promoting childhood vaccines and warning about the dangers of e-cigarettes. Prior to joining the Obama administration, he founded Doctors for America, a nonprofit group advocating for improved healthcare access.

“It will be like an amplified, [Surgeon General] on steroids plus,” the source close to Biden said, adding that Murthy will have a “broader portfolio” that covers both the immediate pandemic crisis and, once it ends, more systemic health care issues including substance abuse, mental health and racial disparities in health care.

“There will be an acute phase focused on Covid, which could be the whole next year between accelerating testing and getting the vaccine out and everything else, but then he’ll be tackling all the things that Covid has unveiled,” said the source.

Murthy, who has been deeply involved in the formulation of Biden’s Covid-19 plans and has been briefing the president-elect multiple times a week since the early months of the pandemic, had been a leading candidate to run the Department of Health and Human Services, but concerns arose over his lack of experience running a large agency with tens of thousands of employees and a budget in the billions.

Nunez-Smith, an associate professor of medicine at Yale, is an expert on health care inequality and will take the lead on the administration’s plans to address the racial inequalities of the virus’ impact. The rates of hospitalization and death are two to four times higher than they are for white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re thinking about [health care inequality] across all policy domains and all policy areas,” Nunez-Smith said in an interview with POLITICO last month. “I’m not the only voice at the table centering us in that way. That’s exactly what we need to be doing.”

The selection of Zients, Murthy and Nunez-Smith follows Biden’s pattern of filling senior positions with people who have a long history of working with him and a proven record in their field. In the Obama administration, Zients served as the director of the National Economic Council, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and the chief performance officer, a position created by Obama that focused on the federal budget and government reform. But Zients won particular praise in the Obama years for his work salvaging the glitch-plagued Healthcare.gov website during the launch of the Affordable Care Act in 2013.

Kathleen Sebelius, who ran the Department of Health and Human Services at the time, praised Zients as the “quarterback” of the last-ditch, high stakes, eight-week effort that saved Obamacare’s enrollment portal.

“We knew we had just one more bite at this apple, and if we announced a date and rolled out a second product that was less than workable, that was it,” she recalled in an interview, referring to the relaunch of Healthcare.gov. “It was a real make-or-break moment and a pretty scary bet. But Jeff exceeded all of my expectations.”

Sebelius, who has been advising Biden’s campaign and transition on health policy, said Zients’ past work in business and government prepared him to bring people together in a way that was “unique in times of high crisis” and his background outside the medical world was an asset rather than a liability.

“This wasn’t a health care problem. We weren’t curing patients or identifying a new drug,” she said. “It was a logistical challenge and identification of where the experts were who understood each piece of the puzzle and making sure they had a seat at the table. The same can be said of a pandemic response.”

But while many of Biden’s personnel choices so far have walked a delicate line to please both moderates and progressives, many groups on the left have raised concerns about Zients’ background running an investment fund, sitting on Facebook’s board and serving as the bridge between the Obama administration and corporate America.

“It’s definitely less concerning than him getting placed at NEC or OMB,” said Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noting that much of the pandemic coordination role will be “purely logistical.”

But Hauser and others say they’re concerned the job will allow him to advance a corporate-friendly agenda when it comes to matters like using the Defense Production Act to spur more manufacturing of masks and swabs and wrangling with pharmaceutical companies on patents for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics. In a 13-page document the group compiled on Zients’ background, they flagged in particular his investment firm Cranemere’s purchase of a majority stake in an anesthesia company that engaged in so-called balance billing — in which patients receive unexpected large bills after seeing a provider thought to be in their insurance network.

“Our basic take is that the less Zients is in a position to assess the prospects for wealthy people and corporations to become more wealthy, the better,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s without skill, but I think you can have people in government who don’t see surprise medical billing as a profit center.”