Virginia Velasco, 96, hands a woven gift to Xavier Becerra.

(Photo by Alex Wilson)

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra listened to the concerns of Oxnard seniors about health care costs and other issues during a visit to the Wilson Senior Center on Nov. 2 as part of a “Latino Health Tour.”

During a speech to a packed room of seniors finishing up a subsidized lunch, the Biden administration cabinet member touted policies aimed at reducing health care costs for seniors as well as the federal government’s progress on the pandemic.

Looking at his phone to access the latest numbers, Becerra said 463 people died of COVID in the U.S. the previous day, and while that’s a far cry from the 4,000 Americans dying daily earlier in the pandemic, he said it’s still equivalent to two big jet airliners crashing every day.

The health secretary explained to the crowd why it’s important to make sure they receive the latest COVID booster shots, saying, “I suspect most of you are going to want to really enjoy the holidays. We’ve had two or three years where it’s been tough to really enjoy the holidays, to be with all our family, hug and kiss those grandkids and the relatives. If you really want to be able to hug and kiss your relatives for these holidays, please make sure you’re updated on your vaccine. It doesn’t cost you a penny to get the vaccine.”

Becerra said that while COVID booster shots are currently offered for free, the funding that pays for that will be ending soon and it’s unclear if Congress will keep the program alive. Looking ahead into the future, Becerra predicted that getting the latest COVID shots will become more routine compared to how it is for most people now.

“COVID is heading where the flu is, where we know it’s going to be around, it’s going to have a different variation than a year ago and we prepare for it,” he explained. “It’ll get to the point, we hope, where once a year probably you have to get vaccinated. Maybe those who have lowered immunity have to get it more often. But most of us once a year, just like with the flu.”

In addition to talking about COVID, Becerra highlighted efforts by the Biden administration to lower prescription drug costs, such as capping the cost of insulin to $35 a month. He said a provision in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act allows the government to negotiate with drug companies on prices.

“Now I’m going to be able to start going to these drug companies to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not the price we’re paying. You want to do business with 65 million Americans on Medicare, you’ve got to give a better price.’ And so starting next year, we’re going to identify the first 10 drugs in America under the Medicare program that we will negotiate with the drug manufacturers on,” said Becerra, adding that by 2025 he expects the lower prices to start going into effect.

Following his speech, the health secretary waded through the crowd of seniors to hear their healthcare concerns, and he also took part in an exercise program offered at the center to help seniors stay fit.

Virginia Velasco, aged 96, presented Becerra with a special gift she had made by hand herself, a blue knitted cell phone holder. Velasco’s daughter Mayra Ceja works at the center and told the Ventura County Reporter about her mother’s gift.

“She said she wanted him to take a little something from Oxnard. And she’s really proud of the crocheting that you do at the center,” Ceja said. “I thought that was so thoughtful of her to do that.”

Audience members seemed mostly impressed with Becerra’s appearance and gave him a big cheer at the end of his speech. Sharon Sullivan, 78, said she enjoyed the HHS Secretary’s message.

“I thought it was wonderful and positive, you know, good that all these seniors are being taken care of and listened to in Washington,” said Sullivan, adding that prescription drug costs are a big concern for her family because she has six relatives with diabetes and a daughter with multiple sclerosis.

Becerra met with reporters following the event and was asked by the Ventura County Reporter if it’s getting harder to convince people to take COVID seriously and get the latest booster as time goes on.

“Until it hits you,” he replied. “When you find out that your mother is now sick and she’s older, you start to worry. You find out that your daughter, who is immune-compromised, catches COVID, now you worry.”

On a lighter note, Becerra said it was great to see the seniors exercising and letting him join in.

“That exercise class that I visited, that’s keeping folks from falling, breaking their hips. That’s going to save taxpayers a ton of money,” he said. “So all these things are good small investments . . . We’re saving probably hundreds of thousands of dollars.”