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Saturday, March 5, 2011

A smoke-making machine: My Don Berwick & his CMS Nomination

Twenty years ago, when my son was a toddler, my wife and I brought him with us to the National Forum of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). He had a cold at the time, but was otherwise fine. As we checked into our hotel room, we saw Dr. Don Berwick, who was entering his own room next door. He said we could call him, even in the middle of the night, if needed, to come and take a look at our son. The gesture was doubly generous because no doctor can cure a cold; the visit would be for the purpose of reassuring us young parents. My son slept peacefully, so we didn't need to take up the offer of this internationally known pediatrician to make an unpaid house call.

Senators Orrin Hatch, Mike Enzi and 40 other Republican U.S. senators sent a letter to President Obama on March 3, asking the president to withdraw the nomination of Dr. Don Berwick as head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

The letter cites four reasons. One is Don’s "lack of experience managing an organization as large and complex as CMS." CMS is the largest organization in the world, so only people who have already led CMS could have that prior experience.

The letter criticizes the President's nomination as "abrupt and unilateral." The Republican legislators' recent habit, of refusing to even formally debate many congressional matters via the filibuster, makes "unilateral" an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

Third, the letter cites Don's past record of "controversial statements." The most loudly voiced (though utterly ungrounded) Republican concern has been to "death panels." Don's father, himself a doctor, died in a nursing home. Don has long pushed hard to make treatment at the end of life – which some call "death by intensive care" – far more humane, via his leadership of the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Don has certainly made controversial statements over his long career in the midst of efforts to greatly change our healthcare system.

The final stated reason in the letter is Don's "lack of experience in the areas of health plan operations and insurance regulation." Before founding IHI, Don led a unit in a large pioneering health maintenance organization (HMO) that was really about health maintenance: Harvard Community Health Plan. (I'm proud to have worked in a sister unit there at the time.) Perhaps Don does not have experience in insurance regulation; I don't know.

Thus, these senators seem to be asking the President to bilaterally nominate someone who led CMS in the past, who has not made controversial statements. No such person exists, of course.

We have to assume that the senators made as compelling a case as they could. But there's no smoking gun here. There is smoke, however: the fact that so many senators agree is itself newsworthy. Well, where there's smoke, as they say, there's a smoke-making machine.

That machine has been quite busy lately. I hope that the President will use his training as a law professor to see the true crux of the senators' objections. Since the stated reasons in the letter aren't genuine, there must be some other reasons. My hunch is that these senators think Don has been, or will be, too effective. And that they must win at all costs, even at the costs of logic, and at the cost of depriving more than 30 million Americans of health insurance.

Read a story about President Obama's personal commitment to health care reform.