Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has some advice for health care workers and health policy makers: If you are going to do it, do it with gusto.
"There's a word in Spanish—ganas. If you look it up in the dictionary, it means 'desire' in English. But for me, it means guts, grit, and game all packaged into one," Becerra said Thursday during a Johns Hopkins Health Policy Forum virtual conversation with School of Nursing Dean Sarah Szanton. "And I learned that from my parents. They would tell me hazlo con ganas—do it with verve, do it with the spirit that you really want to apply to it. And if you do things with ganas, it's infectious. People will look at that and not just reward you for it, but you'll bring people with you."
Becerra said the experiences of his working-class parents helped shape his career dedicated to ensuring that Americans have access to affordable health care.
"I saw how hard my parents worked and how little access they had to the things that most of us now get to take for granted," Becerra said of his mother, who was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. after marrying his father, a day laborer turned construction worker. "And I always knew that if I could, I would try to do everything for folks who are just like my parents."
Becerra has built a career living up to that ideal. After becoming the first in his family to receive a bachelor's degree, he earned his law degree. He started out as a legal advocate representing individuals with mental health challenges and went on to serve for more than two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he worked tirelessly on legislation that made health care more affordable and ensured patient safety. He later served as attorney general of California before becoming the first Latino to hold the office of Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Szanton's conversation with Becerra was wide ranging, from access to health care and mental health services, to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He urged Americans to get an updated, bivalent booster shot.
"With COVID, no one is safe until everyone is safe," Becerra said. "We've seen some 40 million Americans take up the new bivalent vaccine, which is the best at protecting against the latest strains of omicron …. We're trying to encourage people to get the vaccination, take precautions like masking where necessary, and do all the things that we already know to save lives."
Becerra is the seventh expert to participate in the Health Policy Forum series, which launched in fall 2020 to highlight the university's engagement with key leaders on matters of health policy and health care. Previous events featured Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (October 2020); Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (May 2021); Robert M. Davis, CEO and president of Merck (October 2021); Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (January 2022); Atul Gawande, assistant administrator of the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID; and Donna Shalala, former HHS secretary and member of Congress (June 2022)
The Health Policy Forum series is jointly hosted by Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, Carey Business School, and School of Nursing along with Johns Hopkins Medicine.