KHI News Service

Controversial CMS director to make first congressional appearance

Sen. Pat Roberts among Dr. Donald Berwick’s critics, HHS Secretary Sebelius strong supporter

By Jim McLean | November 15, 2010

Sen. Pat Roberts

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Institute for Healthcare Improvement

Donald Berwick, newly appointed head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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Pat Roberts and other Republicans on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee will get their chance this week to question the physician installed last summer as the head of the agency that runs the federal government’s two largest health insurance programs – Medicare and Medicaid.

President Obama named Dr. Donald Berwick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services while Congress was in recess, bypassing the normal confirmation process. Berwick’s appointment is scheduled to expire at the end of the next session of Congress, in late 2011.

Roberts, who will be Kansas’ senior senator when Congressman Jerry Moran assumes the seat now held by Governor-elect Sam Brownback, strongly criticized Obama’s use of a “recess appointment” to install Berwick.

“The American people deserve to hear Dr. Berwick’s plans for radically reforming the American health care system directly from the man himself,” Roberts said Sept. 23. “They deserve to hear him explain: His long history of support for rationing; how he plans on ‘bending the cost curve down’ now that it’s clear Obamacare will not; how he came to his conclusions on the amount of ‘waste’ in our current system; and finally, whey he supports tightly restricted single-payer health care that only the very rich can circumvent.”

Berwick, considered one of the nation’s leading experts on improving the efficiency and quality of health care, is a controversial figure because of his suggestion that some rationing of health care – particularly high-technology services – will be necessary to reduce what many economists believe is unsustainable growth in health care costs. Berwick has said the U.S. health care system, “costs too much and achieves too little.”

One of Berwick’s responsibilities will be to oversee scores of demonstration projects authorized in the federal health reform bill aimed at reducing costs and improving both care and health outcomes.

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Jim McLean’s KPR piece on Berwick controversy

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview last week that Berwick is “the right guy at the right time” to lead the federal agency that oversees more than $900 billion in annual health care spending.

“I don’t think there is any individual in this country who is better suited, at this particular time in history, to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” Sebelius told KHI News Service and its partner, Kansas Public Radio.

Calling him the “single best expert in quality health care delivery,” Sebelius said Berwick’s critics were painting an unfair picture by portraying him as someone determined to cut health care costs at the expense of patient care.

“One of the things that Dr. Berwick believes in and is a great promoter of is that we actually should be delivering better care day in and day out to everyone in this country,” she said.

Both the American Medical Association and American Hospital Association supported Berwick’s appointment.

Berwick is scheduled to make remarks and answer questions from members of the Finance Committee starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday.