Hatch: Truncated First-Ever Senate Hearing for Obama's Never-Confirmed Medicare Director Was 'Pathetic'

By Nicholas Ballasy | November 17, 2010 | 5:41 PM EST

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) (AP photo)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told CNSNews.com that members of the Senate Finance Committee did not have enough time Wednesday to fully question Dr. Donald Berwick, the never-confirmed, recess-appointed director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), during his first appearance before the committee.

Hatch called the hearing “pathetic” and said Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had limited senators to five minutes each to question Berwick, who never appeared before the committee in the customary setting of a confirmation hearing in which his record would be fully vetted and examined by the senators.

Berwick's nomination was controversial because his position is central to carrying out the health-care reform law that President Obama signed in March and because Berwick has been an outspoken advocate of the socialized medical system in Great Britain and for redistribution of wealth through the health-care system. 

Even though his party has controlled a large majority in the Senate in this Congress, President Obama pulled Berwick from the normal confirmation process and appointed him to the job when Congress was in recess. This recess appointment only lasts through the end of 2011 at which time Berwick will have to leave his post if not confirmed by a vote of the full Senate.

Obama has subsequently resubmitted Berwick's nomination to the Senate, so Chairman Baucus could have convened full confirmation hearings for the Medicare director during this lameduck session--when the Democrats will have more Senate votes than they will next year--rather than holding the truncated hearing he conducted yesterday.

“We didn’t have enough time,” Hatch told CNSNews.com. “It’s clear that they held a hearing just to say they’ve held one, but to give five minutes on these very, very important questions, and all we’re hearing is how we should do a better job on prevention,” Hatch told CNSNews.com.

“Well, there’s no question about that, and doctors have said that, and there are some other things in there that just haven’t been quite accurate, but let me just say this, I respect the good doctor (Berwick). He’s been a professor at Harvard. He’s a good pediatrician.

“For all intents and purposes, I suspect he’s a very good doctor but we should never have a recess appointment to the largest agencies in government -- bigger than the Defense Department -- without having thorough transparency, without having hearings, without allowing all questions to be asked.”

The hearing was set to last until 11 a.m., and it ultimately adjourned around 11:20.

Senators who participated in the hearing were given the customary five minutes, but many of them left the hearing or never showed up at all -- "because it was obvious that they would not have had time to question Dr. Berwick due to the truncated nature of the hearing,” a Republican finance committee aide told CNSNews.com. “It was only an hour and 20 minutes--not long for any topic, especially not for a complex topic such as Medicare/health care."

The aide said if the hearing had not been limited to an hour-and-a-half, “Each senator would have had more rounds of questions – each question is allotted five minutes but there can be several rounds. The short nature of the hearing foreclosed the possibility of multiple five-minute rounds.”

Hatch was equally critical at the hearing: "It's like asking us to drain the Pacific Ocean with a thimble. This cannot simply be a check-the-box enterprise. This is pathetic. My gosh, we ought to have time to ask the most important man in America on health care some important questions."

He later told CNSNews.com that Democrats are “deathly afraid” that some of Berwick’s controversial ideas will come out during a full-length hearing.

“Something involving this kind of money and this type of importance and they just completely bypass it--and I’m sure part of the reason was that they didn’t want to have to put up with questions about some of the outrageous statements that the good doctor has made,” Hatch told CNSNews.com.

“Now they have a three-person majority on this committee. There’s no question that they could have [approved Berwick's nomination in committee], but I think they were deathly afraid that some of his ideas would come out and embarrass them at the polls. Well, I can understand that, but then to have a hearing with only five minutes of questions, up against two votes on the floor -- you know, that’s not the way to get to transparency.”

In a July 1, 2008 speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of Britain’s single-payer health-care system, Berwick said: "Any health care funding plan that is just, equitable, civilized and humane must--must--redistribute wealth from the richer among us to the poorer and the less fortunate."

Hatch said he expects these remarks and others to come up if Berwick appears before the Finance committee again.

“Of course it will. Not just that quote but many other quotes that he made. He seemed to really like the socialized medicine system and frankly, I don’t know many Brits that like it.; the long lengthy stays to get operations and to get surgery and to get the basic health care that’s needed,” he told CNSNews.com.

“Let’s just be honest about it--that most people are very critical of that system and it’s the best they could do under that government but hopefully they’ll change it too but we shouldn’t go to that type of a system and end up with the same myriad of problems that Great Britain has.”