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Norris Cochran Named Acting HHS Head as Becerra Awaits Hearing (1)

Jan. 20, 2021, 8:08 PMUpdated: Jan. 20, 2021, 9:10 PM

Norris Cochran, HHS Deputy Assistant Secretary of Budget, will serve as acting secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services while the new administration works to turn around a pandemic response it argues is inadequate, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.

Cochran will serve until President Joe Biden‘s nominee, Xavier Becerra, is confirmed by the Senate. Confirmation is likely, although it may take some time.

The Senate Finance Committee isn’t expected to take up the Becerra nomination this week, delaying his confirmation until likely February, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the planning.

“We have got three things we have to do quickly: impeachment, nominations, Covid. We have got to move them all fast,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which also typically holds a hearing for the HHS secretary nominee, hasn’t made any announcements about its plans for Becerra.

Cochran will serve as acting secretary according to the department’s order of succession. Many of the top officials at the HHS are serving in an acting capacity due to the start of the new administration.

Typically 95% of a president’s announced Cabinet picks have their Senate committee hearing by Inauguration Day, a practice that goes back to the Carter administration, said Dave Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition. About 85% get confirmed within a week of the inauguration, he said.

President Barack Obama‘s first HHS secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, wasn’t confirmed until the end of April 2009. Former HHS Assistant Secretary for Budget, Technology, and Finance Charles Johnson served as acting secretary in the meantime. President Donald Trump‘s first HHS secretary, Tom Price, was confirmed Feb. 10, 2017, and Cochran served as acting.

Sebelius said she “found an agency that was in hyper activity because we had a financial crash that President Obama inherited and we were in the early days of the outbreak of the H1N1, a novel strain of the flu.” The career staff and acting officials were responding to crises at the direction of the White House before she was confirmed.

Marchick said the Biden administration focused on naming advisers around the Covid-19 response so they didn’t have to wait for confirmations to get underway before starting their work.

Other Officials

Some agencies within the HHS will also have acting officials leading their work until Biden’s nominees are confirmed. Elizabeth Richter, deputy director of the Center for Medicare, will serve as acting Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator, according to the agency’s website.

Janet Woodcock, a 30-year veteran of the Food and Drug Administration—whom the administration is considering making the permanent head of the agency—will serve as acting commissioner. Woodcock stepped away from her role in May as drug chief to take a leadership role in Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s effort to speed up research and development of Covid-19 vaccines.

The Biden administration also tapped Felicia Collins, director of the office of minority health, as acting Assistant Secretary for Health. Biden nominated Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to that post, which handles HIV, the opioid epidemic, health equity, and other public health issues the administration has highlighted.

The Biden administration named Micky Tripathi, a health information technology executive, as the HHS national coordinator for Health Information Technology. Tripathi will be responsible for overseeing how new regulations facilitating the access and exchange of electronic health information are carried out by the industry.

Sean McCluskie, a longtime aide to Becerra, will begin his role as HHS chief of staff right away.

Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s pick to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will also take up her new position Wednesday as she doesn’t need Senate confirmation.

“COVID-19 testing, surveillance, and vaccination must accelerate rapidly. We must also confront the longstanding public health challenges of social and racial injustice and inequity that have demanded action for far too long,” Walensky said in a statement.

“And we must make up for potentially lost ground in areas like suicide, substance use disorder and overdose, chronic diseases, and global health initiatives,” she said.

Other new posts include: Deputy General Counsel Dan Barry as acting general council; Office for Civil Rights Principal Deputy Director Robinsue Frohboese as acting OCR director; and Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Director of Executive Management Nikki Bratcher-Bowman as acting assistant secretary.

—With assistance from Jeannie Baumann

(Updated with additional acting head announcements starting in 12th paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at; Shira Stein in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at; Alexis Kramer at; Karl Hardy at