By most objective accounts, Donald Berwick is doing a pretty decent job as chief administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, giving CMS a much-needed shot in the arm and kick in the . . . well, you know.
Unfortunately, that appears to not be enough for him to keep the job beyond the end of the year, as mandated by law for "recess" appointments such as himself.
Berwick, who knows the provider side of medicine as a pediatrician, is a health policy expert of some repute. He has been quite the thinker on broader healthcare questions, including being a co-founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nonprofit that emphasizes improving healthcare and reducing the incidence of medical errors in hospitals, a big-time national problem regardless of one's political leanings.
That, in part, was why President Barack Obama bypassed normal congressional channels and appointed Berwick — while the Senate was in recess last July — to head the federal agency that essentially is the gatekeeper for all reimbursement questions in U.S. healthcare. (Granted, CMS doesn't actually make reimbursement decisions for private insurers, but it certainly influences those decisions with its own.)
In their eagerness to rap the president's knuckles, or perhaps even to smack him upside the head, Republicans have made abundantly clear their intention to block Berwick's permanent appointment. They have tried to cloak it in terms of Berwick not being experienced enough to manage the activities of a bureaucracy the size of CMS, or of being concerned about his views on the rationing of healthcare (he's against it), or his admiration of the British system of socialized healthcare (while not actually advocating such a system here), but the reality is that they want to get back at Obama for having pushed through a version of healthcare reform that he could call his own.
In other words, "We're the new sheriff in town, Mr. President, so you can take your little medicine show and ride on out of here."
This latest sad example of kicking a political football back and forth until we're all dizzy from watching the antics looks like it will deprive the American people of the benefits they might see from someone actually running the Medicare/Medicaid agency with some semblance of leadership and intelligence. In the several months that he has held the position, Berwick has led admirable gains in two longtime problem areas at CMS: combating Medicare fraud and reforming the delivery systems responsible for providing healthcare coverage for more than 100 million Americans (a disclaimer here: I am one of them).
Last month 42 Republican senators called on the president to withdraw Berwick's nomination. With 60 votes needed in the Senate to confirm, that makes the arithmetic work out to "no win" for the president. The White House has said thus far that there are no plans to withdraw Berwick's name, but political realities may eventually force Obama's hand. By "political realities," I mean "count the votes." If there's less than a snowball's chance in Hell that Berwick will win confirmation, there will come a time when the administration will have to cast more than a casual glance at Plan B.
With congressional types from both parties apparently believing that Berwick's principal deputy, Marilyn Tavenner could likely win nomination, that's a possible face-saving fallback position for the president. Her past service as secretary of health and human resources for the commonwealth of Virginia apparently would eliminate the "not experienced enough" argument being applied to Berwick by the Republicans.
Truth be known, Tavenner probably would do a pretty decent job. But that doesn't justify the "shove your face in it" tactics being used by the GOP in this case.
As a true independent most of my life (please don't hold my political views in those long-ago college days against me), I have often found the playing of politics to be abhorrent, essentially distracting from the reality of issues. And lest Republicans among the readers of this particular missive think this is a case of partisan criticism from "the other side," be assured that I quite regularly come upon things done by pols of the Democratic stripe that cause me to gnash my teeth and vent on.
In this case, the issue is that Don Berwick doesn't deserve being hung out to dry just so one political party can use the denial of his confirmation as a way to stick it to the other over what really is a larger ideological question.
This kind of blind partisanship is more than sad; it's pathetic.
(Jim Stommen, retired executive editor of Medical Device Daily, is a freelance writer focusing on healthcare issues.)