Obama ‘Stands Firmly Behind’ Medicare Chief Who Insists Health Systems Must Redistibute Wealth

By Fred Lucas | March 10, 2011 | 2:42 PM EST

Dr. Donald Berwick. (AP Photo/Goodman Media International, Inc.)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama is standing “firmly” behind Dr. Donald Berwick, the man he put in charge of Medicare and Medicaid with a "recess" appointment thus bypassing the normal Senate confirmation process.

Berwick's nomination has been highly controversial because of statements he has made including his insistence that in order to be just a health-care sytem "must redistibute wealth."

“The president stands firmly behind the nomination of Don Berwick because he’s far and away the best person for the job, and he’s already doing stellar work at CMS saving taxpayer dollars by cracking down on fraud, and implementing delivery system reforms that will save billions in excess costs and save millions of lives,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement on Thursday. (CMS is the acronym for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.)

The statement was posted at the top of the press briefing transcript in response to an unanswered question on Wednesday from CNSNews.com.

The White House stance follows some recent news stories that the administration’s support for Berwick was wavering. The stories appeared after 42 Senate Republicans wrote a letter to President Obama opposing Berwick at CMS because of his support for health care rationing and Britain’s single-payer, socialized health care system.

The Mar. 3 letter from Republican senators complained that no senators had the opportunity to ask Berwick a single question.

“As CMS now has the responsibility for restructuring insurance markets across the country, Dr. Berwick’s lack of experience in the areas of health plan operations and insurance regulation raise serious concerns about his qualifications for this position,” the letter said. “Furthermore, his past record of controversial statements, and general lack of experience managing an organization as large and complex as CMS should disqualify him being confirmed as the CMS Administrator.”

Every Republican in the Senate signed the letter except for Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio.

“Withdrawing Dr. Berwick’s nomination would be a positive first step in rebuilding the trust of the American people,” the letter says. “The occupant of this important position, which affects the health care of so many Americans on a daily basis, requires an individual with the appropriate experience and management ability. Our seniors and those who rely on Medicaid deserve no less.

President Barack Obama made the recess appointment for Berwick in July 2010 when Congress was in recess. That appointment will expire at the end of  2011 unless the Senate votes to confirm Berwick. In late January, Obama renominated Berwick for Senate confirmation.

In addition to the Senate GOP concerns stated in the letter to the White House, controversial comments made by Berwick over the years have raised questions about his qualifications to run the CMS.

Back in 2008, for example, in a speech in England celebrating that country’s government-run National Health Service, 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. Excellent health care is by definition redistributional. Britain, you chose well.”

President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

CNSNews.com asked Berwick in January if he believes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, redistributes wealth in the civilized and humane way he envisions.

“I think we are providing through health-care reform security for all Americans, which all Americans really want,” Berwick told CNSNews.com in January.

On Wednesday, CNSNews.com asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, “There have been some conflicting reports on where the White House stands with regards to Dr. Berwick at CMS. Is the White House still committed to seeing that through to confirmation?”

Carney said, “I confess that I’ll have to take that question. I don’t have anything, which is not meant to connote anything except that I don’t know. So let me take that question. We’ll get back to you.” Carney responded by late afternoon in the e-mailed transcript to White House reporters.

Press reports have cast doubt on whether Democrats still support Berwick.

Politico reported on March 4, “Senate Democrats have given up on confirming Don Berwick as CMS administrator in the wake of a letter from 42 Republican senators opposing the nomination, sources tell Politico. Citing the GOP letter, a person familiar with the situation said Senate Democrats and the White House ‘can do the arithmetic’ and now see that there's no way for Berwick to get the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate.”

The New York Times reported on March 7, “Member of Congress, including Democrats, have urged the Obama administration to search for another Medicare chief after concluding that the Senate is unlikely to confirm President Obama’s temporary appointee, Dr. Donald Berwick.”

On March 8, The Hill newspaper, in a story carrying a headline, “Berwick: White House has my back,”  reported, “Embattled Medicare chief Don Berwick said that the White House has supported him throughout a partisan battle over his future” at CMS.