Medicare nominee Weems gets gentle treatment at confirmation hearing

President Bush’s choice to run the Medicare and Medicaid programs endured only a light grilling during his public debut at a confirmation hearing Wednesday.

The Senate Finance Committee met to consider Kerry Weems to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a $600 billion-a-year agency that runs healthcare programs for the elderly, disabled and poor, along with the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

The politics of Medicare is perpetually heated, particularly when it comes to the Part D prescription drug benefit. The current debate over SCHIP has further underscored the partisan divide over healthcare. But Democratic senators mostly refrained from using Weems’s hearing as a forum to air their grievances. Indeed, no senator posed a question about SCHIP.

Weems appeared before the committee as part of a panel of other presidential nominees, including Tevi Troy, Bush’s selection for deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The panel also heard from two Treasury Department nominees, David McCormick and Peter McCarthy, and Bush’s nominee to be director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Charles Millard.

But Weems, currently deputy chief of staff to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, fielded the vast majority of the senators’ questions.

Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.) opened the hearing with what proved to be the toughest questioning of the

Citing recent charges by former Surgeon General Richard Carmona that his views were stifled by political appointees, Baucus said, “It’s not a secret that there is considerable concern that this administration tends to put politics above policy in many different areas.”

Baucus expressed particular consternation at the political activities undertaken by senior officials at CMS.

“I have longstanding concerns” about CMS staging political events, Baucus said, citing a recent press briefing held by then-acting Administrator Leslie Norwalk to promote the Medicare Advantage program, in which private health insurance plans provide Medicare benefits.

Weems responded that he would be an independent overseer of the agency’s operations. “I have on many, many occasions resisted political pressure,” he said.

The two previous CMS administrators under Bush were heavily involved in political issues by virtue of their position and the intense debate over Medicare Part D. Tom Scully, who served from 2001 to 2003, helped create Part D, while Mark McClellan, who served from 2004 until last year, oversaw its implementation.

Weems is a career bureaucrat who has never held a political appointment. He has been at HHS for 24 years and previously held jobs at the Social Security Administration and for then-Sen. Jack Schmitt (R-N.M.).

Weems testified that his primary focus would be ramping up the agency’s oversight activities, particularly of medical providers and the private health plans that participate in Medicare Advantage and Part D.

“If confirmed, I will intensify CMS oversight and I expect you to hold me responsible,” he told the committee.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill Senate passes bipartisan IRS modernization bill MORE (D-Ore.), who said he would support Weems, suggested that Weems target misleading market practices used by some Medicare Advantage plans.

“What concerns me is, seniors are getting ripped off,” said Wyden. “It is also giving a bad name to private-sector healthcare.”

Most of the questions directed at Weems focused on narrow and technical issues, such as pending regulations to set payment rates for hospitals and other medical providers. Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsEPA exempts farms from reporting pollution tied to animal waste EPA exempts farms from reporting pollution tied to animal waste Conservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries MORE (R-Kan.) closed the hearing with a 20-minute diatribe about CMS’s implementation of a competitive bidding program for durable medical equipment.

Several senators raised questions about an ongoing computer glitch that is causing Medicare premiums to be erroneously deducted from some beneficiaries’ Social Security checks. “We’re getting deluged in my office with complaints,” Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. Weems responded that the problem would be one of the first he would tackle if confirmed.