GOP senators take aim at CMS nominee

Senate Republicans aimed their anti-health reform fire Wednesday evening at Donald Berwick, the Obama administration’s nominee to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Sens. Pat Roberts (Kan.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.) joined forces on the Senate floor shortly after the last vote of the day and urged members to review Berwick’s record before voting on his confirmation.

They accused Berwick of promoting health care rationing, especially for older people, and particularly criticized his endorsement of Great Britain’s National Healthcare System (NHS).

“Dr. Berwick is a huge fan of … the NHS, a system that relies on rationing health care to hold down costs,” Roberts said. “Dr. Berwick has said, ‘I am a romantic about the NHS; I love it,’ and ‘the NHS is not just a national treasure, it is a global treasure.’”

Roberts also criticized the NHS’ ‘death pathway,’ which empowers government physicians to humanely end the lives of terminally ill patients. A number of palliative care experts in Great Britain have warned that the pathway can lead patients to be judged as close to death when they are in fact recovering.

 “Dr. Berwick’s ideas on end-of-life care seem to mirror this death pathway,” Roberts said. “He has said that: ‘Most people who have serious pain do not need advanced methods; they just need the morphine and counseling that have been around for centuries.’

“Dr. Berwick is the perfect nominee for a president whose aim has always been to save money by rationing health care,” Roberts added.

The White House quickly responded to the attacks.

“No one is surprised that Republicans plan to use this confirmation process to trot out the same arguments and scare tactics they hoped would block health insurance reform,” White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said in a statement. “The fact is, rationing is rampant in the system today, as insurers make arbitrary decisions about who can get the care they need. Don Berwick wants to see a system in which those decisions are transparent – and that the people who make them are held accountable. He’s dedicated his career to finding ways to making our health care system work better for patients and cost less for taxpayers, which is why he’s earned praise from across the political spectrum and from every corner of the industry. The President is looking forward to Dr. Berwick’s confirmation.”

The British system, which requires waiting times for non-emergency surgeries, was a favorite target for Republicans during the health reform debate. In particular, they pointed out that cancer survival rates in Great Britain are notoriously lower than in the United States.

Still, a British report last year found that 51 percent of Britons were “very” or “quite” satisfied with the NHS system, a 25-year high; the United States by contrast trails other industrialized countries in patient satisfaction.

At the same time, many studies suggest that the United States spends much more on health care than western European nations and has worse outcomes overall. Studies quoted repeatedly by Obama administration officials during the health reform debate suggested that up to one third of health spending in the U.S. is wasted on needless tests and scans, useless procedures and the like. And one Harvard study suggests that as many as 45,000 Americans die every year because they don’t have access to affordable health care and have no insurance.

Berwick, a pediatrician and Harvard professor, is CEO of the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement. He was nominated to head CMS last month; no Senate hearing date has yet been set.

He has outlined his vision for health care as:

·      No needless deaths;

·      No needless pain or suffering;

·      No helplessness in those served or serving;

·      No unwanted waiting;

·      No waste;

·      No one left out.

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