U.S. Senate panel advances nomination of transgender doctor from Pennsylvania for HHS post

    Dr. Rachel Levine. Photo from the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

    WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania’s former top health official, Dr. Rachel Levine, moved one step closer on Wednesday to becoming the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the federal government.

    The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee voted 13-9 to advance Levine’s nomination to serve as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for a vote by the full Senate. The panel’s 11 Democrats were joined by two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — in support of Levine’s nomination.

    Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), the committee’s chairwoman, described Levine in a statement after the vote as “a highly qualified nominee who is not only critical to our pandemic response but would also make history as the highest-ranking openly transgender official in the U.S. government.”

    During her confirmation hearing last month, Levine faced a tirade from Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Ky.), about gender-affirmation surgery for minors.

    Paul attempted to draw a connection between female genital mutilation, a practice condemned as a human rights violation, with gender-affirmation surgery for transgender youth. He grew increasingly angry as he pressed Levine to agree that minors should not be allowed to make decisions on hormone therapy or gender-reassignment surgery.

    Levine responded that transgender medicine is “a very complex and nuanced field, with robust research and standards of care.”

    Several Democratic senators as well as LGBTQ advocates rebuked Paul over his aggressive questioning of Levine.

    After Wednesday’s committee vote, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said in a statement that a Senate vote confirming Levine would be “a historic day for the LGBTQ community and our government.”

    “At a time when the transgender community is facing an outright assault on their basic rights by state legislatures, it is ever more crucial to ensure that every voice is represented in our government,” David said.

    Levine, 63, is a pediatrician who most recently served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health. A graduate of Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, she completed her training in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

    As Pennsylvania’s top health official when the pandemic began last year, Levine held daily public briefings in which she detailed the daily data on COVID-19 infections and deaths.

    During her tenure, Levine also was part of an effort by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to combat rising opioid overdoses. She signed a standing order that makes the overdose-reversal drug naloxone available at most pharmacies without a prescription.

    In addition to voting on Levine’s nomination, the Senate panel also advanced the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy to be U.S. surgeon general.

    The full Senate is expected to vote this week on Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

    A date has not yet been announced for the vote on Levine’s nomination.

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    Laura Olson
    Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Ohio Capital Journal. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.