Obama's Recess-Appointed Medicare Chief Speaks at HHS Press Conference But Doesn’t Stick Around for Questions

By Fred Lucas | July 13, 2010 | 8:44 PM EDT

Dr. Donald Berwick (Photo from Harvard University School of Public Health Web site)

Washington (CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama’s controversial pick to run Medicare and Medicaid made his first public appearance  Tuesday since he landed the job in a recess appointment,  but he did not remain at the press conference long enough to take any questions from the news media.
Dr. Donald Berwick, the new administrator for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who has openly advocated for a health care system that "must redistribute wealth," spoke to a crowd of about 200 people, including reporters, at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Berwick was joined by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, and Dr. David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for Health Information Technology, to announce new federal rules pertaining to electronic health records.
Berwick said electronic health records allow doctors to see patients' histories so they have a better idea of what treatment or prescriptions patients may need. But he said the country has a long way to go in developing the use of these electronic records.
“It’s better care. It’s more reliable. It’s more collegial. It’s better for everyone,” Berwick said. “The question is, if it’s so good, why aren’t we there yet? The reason is because it’s hard. Moving from legacy paper systems to modern information technology is a big change.”
Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009, health care professionals and hospitals can qualify for Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments when they adopt certified computerized health record technology and use it to achieve specified objectives.
Sebelius praised Berwick before moving on to her own comments about computerized records.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius makes a trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

“We are so pleased to have him take this important leadership role at CMS,” said Sebelius. “If your goal is to build a health care system that keeps patients healthier and gives consumers a better bang for their buck, there really is no one else in the country better suited to do that than Dr. Donald Berwick.”
After everyone spoke, Sebelius told the audience that Dr. Blumenthal would remain to take questions about electronic health records from the press. Then Sebelius, Benjamin, and Berwick exited the stage through a back entrance.
Obama sent Berwick's nomination to the Senate on Apr. 19 and gave Berwick a recess appointment on July 7, while Congress was away for the July 4 holiday week.
As director of the CMS, Berwick will play a major role in the implementation of the new federal law to revamp the U.S. health-care system, an industry that comprises about one-sixth of the economy.
Because Obama made the recess-appointment while Congress was out of town, the Democrat-controlled Senate Finance Committee no longer needs to hold a confirmation hearing on Berwick before the November elections, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) does not need to schedule a vote on the nomination this year.
But under the express language of Article 2, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution, Berwick’s recess appointment must “expire by the end of the next session.” This means Berwick must leave office by the end of 2011 unless the Senate puts him through the constitutionally required confirmation process in the intervening time.
Berwick has praised the National Health Service (NHS), the government-run, single-payer health care system in Great Britain, and said that rationing is inevitable when taxpayers are paying for health care.
Speaking at Wembley stadium on July 1, 2008, at an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the NHS, 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.” 
In a June 2009 interview with Biotechnology Healthcare, Berwick said: “We can make a sensible social decision and say, ‘Well, at this point, to have access to a particular additional benefit [new drug or medical intervention] is so expensive that our taxpayers have better use for those funds.’ We make those decisions all the time. The decision is not whether or not we will ration care--the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”