Biden’s team plans to roll out these and other health care personnel announcements as soon as this weekend. The transition team declined to comment.
Zients’ role is modeled on the one that now-Biden chief of staff Ron Klain played during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when Klain coordinated the Obama administration’s national response. In the new Covid position, Zients, a business executive with a range of management experience, will be tasked with working across government agencies to curtail the coronavirus outbreak that has killed almost 275,000 Americans. The job will involve overseeing a surge in testing, a mobilization of economic aid and the rollout of a vaccine, among other top priorities.
“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.”
The White House plans to team 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.”