Republicans call for confirmation hearing on CMS chief

By Bernie Monegain
04:29 PM

On his first day on the job as chief of the country's Medicare and Medicaid programs, Harvard Medical School Professor Donald Berwick, MD, touted the value of electronic health records. On Wednesday, House and Senate Republicans clamored for their leaders to summon Berwick to the Hill for hearings on his nomination.

President Obama bypassed the hearing process by putting Berwick in charge during an official recess of Congress. Berwick was sworn in on July 12.

On July 13 he participated in the release of the final rule for meaningful use of health IT alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and David Blumenthal, MD, national coordinator for health IT.

Berwick, a pediatrician, is the founder and – until his appointment – the president and CEO of the Boston-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

His supporters see him as thoroughly qualified to lead the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and point to his lifelong work aimed at improving the quality of care. They call him a visionary.

His detractors call him a radical, and say he is too enamored of NHS, England's National Health Service. They also accuse him of promoting healthcare rationing.

"Dr. Berwick has dedicated his career to improving outcomes for patients and providing better care at lower cost," President Obama said in announcing his nomination on April 19. "That's one of the core missions facing our next CMS Administrator, and I'm confident that Don will be an outstanding leader for the agency and the millions of Americans it serves."

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committeeare are not so sure.

In a July 14 letter to Chairman Sander M. Levin (D-Mich), they asked him to schedule a hearing.

"Considering the significant impact the new laws will have on the Medicare program and the critical role the CMS administrator will have in implementing these cuts, we are very surprised that President Obama chose to circumvent the normal confirmation process," the GOP leaders wrote. "In doing so, members of Congress and the American people were denied the opportunity to hear Dr. Berwick's testimony and learn how he intends to ensure that seniors' access to care is preserved."

In the letter, the Republican members complained they had yet to hold a full committee hearing with a CMS official and that Sebelius had not appeared before the committee since May 6, 2009.

"Our nation's seniors deserve to know what is in store for their healthcae and how Dr. Berwick intends to manage an agency that controls $800 billion in taxpayer funds annually," they wrote.

There was no immediate response from Rep. Levin.

The health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee has scheduled a hearing on July 20 to focus on efforts to promote the adoption of health information technology, specifically through Medicare incentives designed to encourage the meaningful use of electronic health records.