GOP says Obama avoiding questions about CMS head's ties to industry

A Republican memo charges the Obama administration with avoiding questions about its new head of Medicare’s ties to the healthcare industry.

The memo from a staffer for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) suggests that by using a recess appointment to place Donald Berwick at the head of the agency running Medicare, the administration may be avoiding questions about whether Berwick’s healthcare institute received undisclosed funding from industry groups. The memo also raises questions with Berwick's stance on euthanasia.

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Berwick's Institute for Healthcare Improvement received more than $9 million in “gifts” in 2008 and 2009 from unknown donors, according to Grassley’s office, at the same time that Berwick was being paid a $2.4 million salary as CEO. Grassley, a longtime advocate of transparency in healthcare funding, asked for the information several weeks ago.

The memo said Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, was also waiting for responses to questions to Berwick about whether he had links to a group that advocates for patients’ right to die. The question came from another Republican member and was based on Berwick’s past statements on end of life care, not any tangible proof that he was linked to Compassion and Choices, the former Hemlock Society. 

The memo also said Grassley did not intend to delay Berwick’s confirmation hearing, and had wanted the hearing to take place before a similar hearing for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

“I want to make sure it is absolutely clear up front that we were prepared for a nomination hearing to occur,” the staffer writes in the memo. “Furthermore, Senator Grassley had in fact requested that the hearing take place the week of June 21 (before the hearing on the Kagan nomination in Judiciary). So these items were not a precondition for holding the nomination hearing. Republicans were in no way holding up this process. We wanted the hearing.”

President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening announced he would use his recess appointment powers to name Berwick as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The move preempts a Senate confirmation vote and would keep Berwick in his post through the end of next year.

Republicans have blasted the announcement, arguing the administration is trying to avoid a new fight over the healthcare law that Berwick will administer.

Grassley wanted answers about the sources of funding for Berwick’s Institute for Healthcare Improvement, an independent non-profit that looks at ways to reform healthcare systems to help patients.

The memo also asked whether “Berwick had ever received funding from, been a member of, consulted with or for, or been associated in any way with Compassion and Choices, formerly known as The Hemlock Society.”

“The nominee had indicated that this information would be provided and (the Department of Health and Human Services) indicated it was being prepared,” the memo says. The staffer writes that the committee had received all of the nominee’s paperwork and responses to bipartisan questions.

Grassley's office said the senator still expected responses to the two questions but was doubtful they would be forthcoming now.

Republicans on the panel were “prepared for a nomination hearing to occur” the memo adds. 

This story was posted at 10:53 a.m. and updated at 12:16 p.m.