Former Medicare chief calls Berwick appointment to CMS post 'tainted'

The surprise recess appointment of Donald Berwick to head Medicare was "terribly unfortunate," Gail Wilensky, who led the agency under George H.W. Bush, said Friday, warning that the controversial placement will cripple Berwick's relationship with Republicans and make him a less effective leader. 

"His appointment is tainted," Wilensky said at a health reform discussion on Capitol Hill. "It will complicate life for everybody."

President Obama on Wednesday used a recess appointment to place Berwick, a Harvard-based pediatrician, atop the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The idea was that any criticisms of the move would be outweighed by the benefits of avoiding a prolonged confirmation process, which threatened to replay the thorny debate over health reform. 

A number of Senate Republicans have opposed Berwick, largely due to his praise of Britain's nationalized healthcare system. 

Wilensky argued that the process was still young (Berwick was nominated in April) and that the White House should have let it run its course. The recess appointment not only threatens to shorten his term, she said, but has damaged his relationship with Republicans even more than it was. 

"I am very saddened for Don and the extra burden that he will carry," she said. 

Friday's healthcare forum was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Alliance for Health Reform.