Health highlights Thursday

In an otherwise sleepy week, expect the political maelstrom to continue over Wednesday’s surprise recess appointment of Donald Berwick to head Medicare. Top Republicans — and at least one well-placed Democrat, in Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — are mightily agitated that the White House has denied Congress a chance to ask Berwick directly about his vision for Medicare as the agency implements the many changes required under the new healthcare reform law. (Translation: Many wanted to grill him about his 2008 fawning over Britain’s nationalized healthcare system). 

Faced with entrenched GOP opposition in the Senate — and the likelihood that a long-drawn confirmation process would rehash the ideological debate over healthcare reform just as polls indicate it’s gaining in popularity — President Barack Obama decided that whatever heat the White House takes over the recess appointment is worth the trouble to have Berwick in place immediately. “We need somebody on the job now,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters Wednesday. 

But many questions remain about that decision, not least of all: Why did Democratic leaders never call a confirmation hearing on Berwick in the Finance Committee? 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), senior Republican on that panel, said Wednesday that he requested such a hearing two weeks ago. Baucus’s office said this week that it was “working through the standard vetting process” in anticipation of a hearing, while Gibbs denied outright that the White House had urged Democratic leaders to avoid such an examination. But neither response is going to convince GOP leaders, who will be drooling for a chance to get a shot at Berwick during appropriations season, when he’ll have to testify on Capitol Hill. 

Elsewhere Thursday, the New England Healthcare Institute will be at the National Press Club discussing how to use comparative effectiveness studies to improve care. 

And the Union of Concerned Scientists is hosting a press call examining the health effects of climate change. Featured will be scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several universities. One of those academics, Matt Huber, professor of atmospheric science at Purdue University, will present a recent report indicating that climate change could eventually make the eastern half of the United States uninhabitable.