By Jason Millman - 01/29/11 05:00 PM EST
President Obama’s renomination of Don Berwick to lead the Medicare agency means that the controversial healthcare leader will finally have to face the public grilling that Republicans have been aching to give him.
Berwick, who has been panned by Republicans for what they describe as his radical views on healthcare rationing, was able to avoid a Senate Finance Committee hearing before his recess appointment in July.
Berwick has stoked Republican fears because of his past statements that the government should "ration [care] with our eyes open." Republicans say those statements and the reform law's cuts in Medicare payments signal of Berwick's desire to limit seniors' benefits.
Those concerns have made Berwick a controversial and central figure in the Obama administration's efforts to implement the sweeping healthcare reform law.
Soon after Berwick’s nomination in July, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked him to appear before a House panel to explain his views on healthcare policy, but the request was never fulfilled.
In November, after Republicans were swept into control of the House, Barton invited Berwick to a briefing with Energy and Commerce Committee members of both parties. A Barton spokesman told The Hill on Friday that the request was ignored.
And in September, Berwick did not respond to a request from Finance Committee Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to attend a forum on his appointment and the implementation of the healthcare reform law.
While Berwick has avoided public interrogation, he hasn’t been completely inaccessible, meeting privately with at least 24 Senators and two House members, including several Republicans, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
Though he has been largely kept out of the public eye, Berwick has attended some health department press conferences and healthcare conferences. Some of the groups he’s appeared before include America’s Health Insurance Plans, the American Medical Group Association, the National Committee for Quality Assurance and the National Summit on Health Care Quality and Value.
On Thursday, the day after he was renominated to lead CMS, Berwick spoke to Families USA at the pro-reform group’s annual conference and left without taking audience questions.
For Berwick to keep his job, he will have to answer questions from the Senate Finance Committee and win approval from the full Senate. Berwick’s sole appearance on Capitol Hill, in November before the Senate Finance Committee, showed that GOP lawmakers aren’t softening their stance on him. After the hearing, angered Republicans said they weren’t provided enough time to properly question Obama’s Medicare chief.
“It’s like asking us to drain the Pacific Ocean with a thimble,” Hatch said at the time. “We ought to have time to ask the most important man in healthcare sufficient questions.”
The announcement of Berwick’s nomination this week reignited Hatch’s opposition.
“A day after the President committed to coming together to move our country forward, he’s chosen to renominate one of his most contentious nominees to head an agency that impacts the lives of more than 100 million Americans,” Hatch said. “Given Dr. Berwick’s controversial views, Republicans will expect a full hearing to understand how the administration is implementing the $2.6 trillion health law, its impact on the American people and the consequences to future of Medicare and Medicaid.”
Based on their depiction of Berwick’s views, Republican lawmakers will be under pressure to interrogate him when the time comes, one former Obama administration health adviser said.
“There will be political impulses to address the politics around this, where they appeal to their base to attack any sort of thing that has to do with healthcare,” said Neera Tanden, now the chief operating officer of the liberal Center for American Progress.
Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, relishing their new oversight powers, have promised to investigate the reform law.
“Dr. Berwick ran from my questions last year, but he can’t hide this year,” Barton said in a statement to The Hill. “His views on rationing care are very troublesome, and the American people deserve to hear about his beliefs on socialized medicine. I look forward to seeing him face to face and having the opportunity to ask him some fair questions when he comes before the Energy and Commerce Committee.”
However, Tanden said Berwick would have the benefit of going into the hearings with somewhat of a track record to combat rationing accusations.
“His tenure up to his point has not given any shred of indication that he is what the Republicans said,” Tanden said. “In a world where facts matter and evidence matters, his nomination would be bolstered by his actual time in office.”