Berwick Laments Washington, D.C., Cynicism About ACA

Dr. Donald Berwick, who recently left his job as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) because the Senate refused to confirm his nomination, struck back at his critics who had accused the pediatrician of advocating healthcare rationing.

“The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care,” Berwick said.  “It boggles my mind that the same people who cry ‘foul’ about rationing an instant later argue to reduce healthcare benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people — elders, the poor, the disabled – who are least able to bear them.”

Although Berwick didn’t specifically accuse Senate Republicans, it was clear that he was referring to proposals to drastically slash the nation’s budget deficit by capping federal funding to states for Medicaid.  That proposal could cut billions of dollars that critics have said would lead to cuts in benefits.

During his 16-month tenure at CMS, Berwick studiously avoided using the term “rationing”.  Now, the gloves have come off.  “When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing.  When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing.  When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing.”

Berwick also jabbed at those who inaccurately said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) included so-called “death panels.”  According to Berwick, “If you really want to talk about ‘death panels,’ let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America.  Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell healthcare insurers that is it OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick.”

Going even further, Berwick said that the ACA needs more advocates supporting the law. “The law is just a framework,” Berwick said.  “Healthcare in America can improve and it can become sustainable without a tremendous amount of community involvement.”  President Obama has an important role in this, as do healthcare consumers who must push healthcare leaders to rethink the way they work.  “Increasingly, though, that advocacy role is falling to physicians, nurses, and hospital executives.  We need their voices, because they know the system can’t go on the way it is,” he said.

“I think that a lot of the public concern about that law and a lot of the congressional criticism is ill-founded and based on myths,’’ Berwick said.  “I think any chance to air publicly, with conversation and even debate, matters of such concern is healthy.’’

While contemplating what to do next in his career, Berwick said “I’m excited by how much is in motion in healthcare right now.  It’s an incredibly interesting and promising time with many risks, and I want to stay thoroughly engaged in reshaping American healthcare into the high-performance, sustainable system I know it can be.”

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