Senate Republicans Refusing to Confirm Dr. Donald Berwick

Senate Republicans are trying to block the nomination of Harvard-educated pediatrician Dr. Donald Berwick to serve a full term as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.  Led by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, and Mike Enzi (R-WY), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the senators contend that President Barack Obama’s recess appointment last year was completed before a hearing was held.  The senators contend that this hindered the 111th Congress’ ability to fully consider Berwick’s nomination.

“This abrupt and unilateral action meant that no senator — Democrat or Republican — was given the opportunity to ask Dr. Berwick a single question before he was placed in charge of an agency with a budget larger than the Department of Defense; which controls four percent of our nation’s gross domestic product; and, most importantly, directly impacts more than 100 million American lives every single day,” according to the Senators’ letter.  The senators say that Berwick’s “past record of controversial statements, and general lack of experience managing an organization as large as complex as CMS should disqualify him” from the post.  “Once you have withdrawn his nomination, we are confident we can all work together to find a nominee for administrator we can support and confirm after appropriate hearings are held,” the letter stated.

Even some Congressional Democrats are urging the Obama administration to find another Medicare chief after concluding that the Senate is unlikely to confirm Dr. Berwick. The most-favored nominee is Dr. Berwick’s principal deputy, Marilyn B. Tavenner, a nurse and former Virginia secretary of health and human resources who has extensive management experience and would likely be confirmed.  President Obama bypassed Congress and named Dr. Berwick to his post while the Senate was in recess last summer.  The current appointment allows him to serve to the end of 2011.

Despite the vocal opposition to Dr. Berwick, President Obama is refusing to withdraw his nomination. “The president nominated Don Berwick because he’s far and away the best person for the job, and he’s already doing stellar work at CMS: saving taxpayer dollars by cracking down on fraud, and implementing delivery system reforms that will save billions in excess costs and save millions of lives,” White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said.  Unfortunately for the president, even some Senate Democrats believe that Berwick cannot be confirmed.  Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has said that he would not commit to a confirmation hearing, and other Democrats have acknowledged that the nomination is in trouble.  “I think it would be very tough in this environment.  If we can get some bipartisan products moving forward, then the answer is yes. If you can’t get some bipartisan products moving forward, it’s going to be difficult,” said Senator Ben Cardin, (D-MD).

The Medicare administrator’s job involved significant responsibilities under the healthcare law, such as establishing new insurance markets, expanding Medicaid, and overhauling the way Medicare pays providers to reward quality instead of volume. Republicans need 41 votes to block Berwick’s confirmation in the full Senate; their letter indicates they have more than enough.  The loss of Berwick, a respected medical innovator and patient advocate, would be a blow to the administration as it moves ahead in its implementation of the healthcare reform law.

Five Republican senators did not sign Hatch’s letter.  They are Scott Brown (R-MA), Susan Collins (R-ME),  Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rob Portman (R-OH).

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