Meet the Radical Technocrat Helping Democrats Sell Single-Payer

If anyone had doubts about the radical nature of Democrats’ health care agenda, they needn’t look further than the second name on the witness list for this Wednesday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing on single-payer health care: Donald Berwick of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

If that name sounds familiar, it should. In summer 2010, right after Obamacare’s passage, President Obama gave Berwick a controversial recess appointment to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Democrats refused to consider Berwick’s nomination despite controlling 59 votes in the Senate at the time, and he had to resign as CMS administrator at the end of his recess appointment in late 2011.

Berwick’s History of Radical Writings

Even a cursory review of Berwick’s writings explains why Obama’s only option was to push him through with a recess appointment, and why Democrats refused to give Berwick so much as a nomination hearing. As someone who read just about everything he wrote until his nomination—thousands of pages of journal articles, books, and speeches—I know the radical nature of Berwick’s thinking all too well. He believes passionately in a society ruled by a technocratic elite, thinking that a core group of government planners can run the country’s health care system better than individual doctors and patients.

Here is what this doctor believes in, in his own words:

  • Socialized Medicine: “Cynics beware: I am romantic about the National Health Service; I love it. All I need to do to rediscover the romance is to look at health care in my own country.”
  • Control by Elites: “I cannot believe that the individual health care consumer can enforce through choice the proper configurations of a system as massive and complex as health care. That is for leaders to do.”
  • Wealth Redistribution: “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 less fortunate.”
  • Shutting Medical Facilities: “Reduce the total supply of high-technology medical and surgical care and consolidate high-technology services into regional and community-wide centers … Most metropolitan areas in the United States should reduce the number of centers engaging in cardiac surgery, high-risk obstetrics, neonatal intensive care, organ transplantation, tertiary cancer care, high-level trauma care, and high-technology imaging.”
  • End of Life Care: “Most people who have serious pain do not need advanced methods; they just need the morphine and counseling that have been available for centuries.”
  • Cost-Effectiveness Rationing of Care: “The decision is not whether or not we will ration care—the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”
  • Doctors Putting “The System” over their Patients: “Doctors and other clinicians should be advocates for patients or the populations they service but should refrain from manipulating the system to obtain benefits for them to the substantial disadvantage of others.”
  • Standardized “Cookbook Medicine”: “I would place a commitment to excellence—standardization to the best-known method—above clinician autonomy as a rule for care.”

For those who want a fuller picture of Berwick’s views, in 2010-11 I compiled a nearly 30-page dossier featuring excerpts of his beliefs, based on my comprehensive review of his prior writings and speeches. That document is now available online here, and below.

Where’s the Political Accountability?

Some of Berwick’s greatest admiration is saved for Britain’s National Health Service on the grounds that it was ultimately politically accountable to patients. For instance, Berwick said his “rationing with our eyes open” quote was “distorted,” claiming that

Someone, like your health insurance company, is going to limit what you can get. That’s the way it’s set up. The government, unlike many private health insurance plans, is working in the daylight. That’s a strength.

When running for governor of Massachusetts in 2013, Berwick claimed he “regrets listening to White House orders to avoid reaching out to congressional Republicans.” But that doesn’t absolve the fact that Berwick went to great lengths to avoid the political accountability he previously claimed to embrace.

It also doesn’t answer the significant questions about why Obama waited until after Obamacare’s enactment to nominate Berwick—deliberately keeping the public in the dark about the radical nature of the person he wanted to administer vast swathes of the law.

Thankfully, however, Wednesday’s hearing provides a case of “better late than never.” Republicans will finally get a chance to ask Berwick about the extreme views expressed in his writings. They will also be able to raise questions about why Democrats decided to give him an official platform to talk about single payer (and who knows what else).

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Repealing “Son of Obamacare”

The election of Donald Trump brings conservatives an opportunity to repeal a misguided piece of health care legislation that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, will blow a major whole in our deficit, has led to thousands of pages of regulations, and will further undermine the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.

Think I’m talking about Obamacare?

I am — but I’m not just talking about Obamacare.

I’m also talking about the Medicare and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), which passed last year (with a surprising level of Republican support) and contains many of the same flaws as Obamacare itself.

Just as Republicans are preparing legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, they also need to figure out how to undo MACRA.

Last month, the Obama administration released a 2,398-page final regulation — let me say that again: a 2,398-page regulation — implementing MACRA’s physician reimbursement regime.

In the new Congress, Republicans can and should use the Congressional Review Act to pass a resolution of disapproval revoking this massive new regulation. They can then set about making the changes to Medicare that both Paul Ryan and Donald Trump have discussed: getting government out of the business of 1) fixing prices and 2) micro-managing the practice of medicine.

MACRA’S FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED, STATIST APPROACH

Since the administration released its physician-payment regulations — nearly as long as Obamacare itself – some commentary has emphasized (rightly) the burdensome nature of the new federal regulations and mandates.

But the more fundamental point, rarely made, is that we need more than mere tweaks to free doctors from an ever-tightening grip exercised by federal overseers. After more than a half century of failed attempts at government price-setting and micro-management of medical practice, it’s time to get Washington out of the business of playing “Dr. Sam” once and for all.

In fact, even liberals tend to acknowledge this occasionally. In a May 2011 C-SPAN interview, Noam Levey of the Los Angeles Times asked then-administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Donald Berwick why he thought the federal government could use Medicare as it exists to reform the health-care system:

In nearly half a century of federal-government oversight, the federal government hasn’t succeeded in two really important things: Number one, Medicare costs are still growing substantially more quickly than the economy; and number two, that fragmented [health care] system . . . has persisted in Medicare for 46 years now. . . . Why should the public, when it hears you, when it hears the President say, “Don’t worry, this time we’re going to make it better, we’re going to give you a more efficient, higher-quality health care system,” why should they believe that the federal government can do now what it essentially hasn’t really been able to do for close to half a century? [Emphasis added] 

Dr. Berwick didn’t really answer the question: He claimed that fragmented care issues “are not Medicare problems — they’re health system problems.” But in reality, liberal organizations like the Commonwealth Fund often argue Medicare can be leveraged as a model to reform the entire health care system — and that is exactly what MACRA, in defiance of historical precedent, tries to do.

When a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report examined the history of various Medicare payment demonstrations, it concluded that most had not saved money. A seminal study undertaken by MIT’s Amy Finkelstein concluded that the introduction of Medicare, and specifically its method of third-party payment, was one of the primary drivers of the growth in health-care spending during the second half of the 20th century.

After five decades of failed government control and rising costs driven by the existing Medicare program, the solution lies not in more tweaks and changes to the same program.

The answer lies in replacing that program with a system of premium support that gets the federal government out of the price-fixing business entirely.

The notion that the federal government can know the right price for inhalation therapy in Birmingham or the appropriate reimbursement for a wart removal in Boise is a fundamentally flawed and arrogant premise — one that conservatives should whole-heartedly reject.

Unfortunately, most critics of MACRA have not fully grasped this. A law that prompts the federal bureaucracy to issue a sprawling regulation of nearly 2,400 pages cannot on any level be considered conceptually sound.

Believing otherwise echoes Margaret Thatcher’s famous maxim about consensus politicians and conviction politicians: Some analysts, seeking a consensus among their fellow technocrats, push for changes to make the 2,400-page rule more palatable. But our convictions should have us automatically reject any regulation with this level of micro-management and government-enforced minutiae.

THE NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM

It bears worth repeating that, in addition to perpetuating the statist nature of Medicare, MACRA raised the deficit by over $100 billion in its first ten years — and more thereafter — while not fundamentally solving the long-term problem of Medicare physician-payment levels.

More than a decade ago, after President Bush and a Republican Congress passed the costly Medicare Modernization Act (MMA), creating the Part D prescription-drug entitlement, conservatives argued even after the law’s passage that the new entitlement should not take effect. If the MMA was “no Medicare reform” for including only a premium-support demonstration project, conservatives should likewise reject MACRA, which includes nothing – not even a demonstration project — to advance the premium-support reform Medicare truly needs.

Any efforts focused on building a slightly better government health-care mousetrap distract from the ultimate goal: removing the mousetrap entirely. In his 1964 speech A Time for Choosing, Reagan rejected the idea “that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves” — and Republicans should do the same today.

In the context of health care, this means not debating the details of MACRA but replacing it, sending power back to where it belongs — with the people themselves.

Last week’s election results give the new Congress an opportunity to do just that, by disapproving the MACRA rule and moving to enact comprehensive Medicare reform in its place. After more than five decades of the same statist health care policies, it’s finally time for a new approach. Here’s hoping Congress agrees.

This post was originally published at National Review.

When CMS Director’s Post Opens–Again–Will Obama Step Up?

When Marilyn Tavenner steps down as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this month, one of the federal government’s most powerful positions will once again come open. History and President Barack Obama’s actions toward the post suggest that finding a replacement might prove difficult.

Before Ms. Tavenner was confirmed in May 2013, CMS had gone without a permanent, Senate-confirmed administrator for nearly seven years—since Mark McClellan left the agency in the fall of 2006. The Bush administration nominated Kerry Weems, a career civil servant, to replace Mr. McClellan; Mr. Weems received a polite hearing from the Senate Finance Committee in July 2007, but a CMS policy memo issued shortly afterward regarding the Children’s Health Insurance Program angered Senate Democrats. The committee’s chairman, Max Baucus (D., Mont.), refused to bring the nomination to a vote, and Mr. Weems served as acting administrator for the rest of the Bush administration.

Upon taking office, President Obama waited nearly 15 months—until his health-care legislation was passed—to nominate Don Berwick to run the agency that would oversee much of the law’s implementation. Mr. Berwick’s history of writings proved so inflammatory that Democrats, despite having an overwhelming Senate majority, refused to advance his nomination. Mr. Berwick received a controversial recess appointment from President Obama in July 2010 but was forced to leave CMS in December 2011 when his temporary appointment expired because the Senate had not voted on his confirmation.

While serving in the Senate in 2007-08, Mr. Obama stood by as Sen. Baucus and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) put Mr. Weems’s confirmation on ice. And as president, Mr. Obama failed to demand a vote from his fellow Democrats when they decided not to advance Mr. Berwick’s nomination, likely seeking to spare vulnerable incumbents from taking a position on a nominee with a controversial record. Given the president’s history of remaining quiet about a Democratic Senate not confirming CMS nominees, he has little standing to complain should the Republican-controlled Senate choose not to advance his choice to succeed Ms. Tavenner.

Even before Obamacare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had a budget larger than that of the Pentagon; since the law passed, its subsidies, regulations, or both affect the insurance of basically every American with health coverage. The CMS administrator’s job is critical. But President Obama’s actions have contributed to a lack of permanent leadership in CMS for most of the past eight years. We’ll see whether that pattern persists after Ms. Tavenner departs.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.

Donald Berwick’s Rationed Transparency

Dr. Donald Berwick is back in the public eye. The former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced he will run for governor in Massachusetts.

Berwick first entered the public spotlight in April 2010, when President Obama nominated him for the CMS post. But Berwick never went through the regular confirmation process. Instead, the president granted him a surprise recess appointment that July.

The president renominated him in January 2011, but it became apparent that he could not garner enough votes for Senate confirmation. That December, Berwick resigned. Now, he is pursuing office as an elected, rather than an appointed, official.

Berwick’s short tenure at CMS was defined by a series of controversial statements he made before his appointment. He defended both Britain’s National Health Service and government rationing of health care. Most famously, in a June 2009 interview, he stated that “the decision is not whether or not we will ration care — the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”

After leaving CMS, Berwick said his comments were merely an attempt to argue for greater transparency in decision-making. “Someone, like your health-insurance company, is going to limit what you can get. That’s the way it’s set up,” he told the New York Times. “The government, unlike many private health-insurance plans, is working in the daylight,” he insisted. “That’s a strength.”

Unfortunately, Berwick himself, while head of CMS, went to great lengths to avoid transparency. He ducked reporters, in one instance even “exit[ing] behind a stage” to avoid press queries. Another time he went so far as to request a “security escort” to avoid questions.

Today, Berwick concedes his lack of transparency. According to a Politico report, he now “regrets listening to White House orders to avoid reaching out to congressional Republicans.”

The lack of transparency is endemic in the Obama administration. Case in point: the enactment of Obamacare. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised health-care negotiations televised on C-SPAN. Instead, we got a series of notorious backroom deals: the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, the Gator Aid.

“It’s an ugly process, and it looks like there are a bunch of backroom deals,” Obama feebly admitted in January 2010 — only to retreat again to the smoke-filled rooms two months later, where he cut the final deals to ram the legislation through Congress.

Obamacare is premised on the belief that government knows best. And those who share that belief all too often regard transparency and public accountability as inconveniences.

Consider the administration’s approach to regulating the proposed health-insurance “exchanges.” Obamacare requires state-based exchanges to “hold public meetings and input sessions,” but it fails to apply these same transparency standards to the federally run exchanges Washington will create in 33 states. The result: Many key questions remain unanswered.

Thus a law written in secret is being implemented in secret, with a maximum of opacity and a minimum of accountability from the administration.

This post was originally published at National Review.

Pediatric Research Bill: Obamacare’s Road to Rationing?

A PDF of this Issue Brief is available on the Heritage Foundation website.

Later this month, the House of Representatives could consider legislation regarding pediatric research.[1] Legislation regarding this issue (H.R. 1724) was first introduced in April, and a new version of the bill (H.R. 2019) was introduced in May.

Although largely similar, H.R. 1724 would require the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide a justification for any existing grants studying health economics, and would prohibit new grants until “a federal law has been enacted authorizing the National Institutes of Health to use funding specifically for health economics research.”[2] Press reports indicate that H.R. 2019 excludes the restrictions included in H.R. 1724 “in order to please Democrats who favor the research.”[3]

This is a mistake. The House should ensure that H.R. 1724’s proposed restrictions on health economics research remain in any NIH-related legislation that comes to the House floor. To do otherwise would provide tacit approval to Obamacare’s road to government-rationed health care.

Proposed Restriction a Necessary Protection

The provision omitted from H.R. 2019 would have instituted an important and necessary protection on taxpayer-funded research on cost-effectiveness in health care. In recent years, the federal government has funded numerous such studies. For instance, a June 2011 Government Accountability Office report examining projects funded by the “stimulus” highlighted NIH grants studying the cost-effectiveness of various medical treatments, including:

  • “A Comprehensive Model to Assess the Cost-Effectiveness of Patient Navigation,”
  • “Cost-Effectiveness of Hormonal Therapy for Clinically Localized Prostate Cancer;”
  • “Clinical and Cost-Effectiveness of Biologics in Rheumatoid Arthritis,” and
  • “Cost-Effectiveness of HIV-Related Mental Health Interventions.”[4]

Liberals Favor Cost-Effectiveness Research

Setting aside the wisdom of using taxpayer funds to examine the cost-effectiveness of various treatments, such research could eventually be used to deny patients access to certain kinds of care. Quotes from key policymakers reveal how some would use cost-effectiveness research as a way for government bureaucrats to block access to treatments that are deemed too costly:

  • Former Senator Tom Daschle (D–SD), President Obama’s first choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, wrote in 2008 that “we won’t be able to make a significant dent in health-care spending without getting into the nitty-gritty of which treatments are the most clinically valuable and cost effective. That means taking a harder look at the real costs and benefits of new drugs and procedures.”[5]
  • In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, President Obama argued that “the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.… There is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place.”[6]
  • Former Medicare Administrator Dr. Donald Berwick, in his infamous 2009 interview, strongly argued in favor of taxpayer-funded cost-effectiveness research when stating that “the decision is not whether or not we will ration care—the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open.”[7]

Lawmakers have already expressed their desire to use cost-effectiveness research to restrict access to certain treatments. A report prepared by the House Appropriations Committee in 2009, discussing “stimulus” funding for the types of projects highlighted above, noted that thanks to the research funding, “those items, procedures, and interventions that are most effective to prevent, control, and treat health conditions will be utilized, while those that are found to be less effective and in some cases more expensive will no longer be prescribed.”[8]

Road to Rationing

Although research comparing the relative merits and costs of medical treatments may sound appealing, past experience has demonstrated that such research can, and often is, used as a blunt tool by governments to restrict access to certain kinds of care. At a time when genetic advances have opened the door to personalized medical treatments, Obamacare has moved health policy in the opposite direction, expanding the federal bureaucracy in an attempt to micromanage the health care system.[9]

Imposing the restrictions on cost-effectiveness research included in H.R. 1724 would represent a good first step in restoring the balance between federal bureaucrats and patients.

 



[1]Daniel Newhauser, “Mindful of Previous Defeat, Cantor Pushes Bill to Increase Pediatric Research,” Roll Call, June 10, 2011, http://www.rollcall.com/news/mindful_of_previous_defeat_cantor_pushes_bill_to_increase_pediatric-225436-1.html?zkPrintable=true (accessed June 13, 2013).

[2]The Kids First Research Act of 2013, H.R. 1724, § 4.

[3]Newhauser, “Mindful of Previous Defeat.”

[4]U.S. Government Accountability Office, HHS Research Awards: Use of Recovery Act and Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Funds for Comparative Effectiveness Research, GAO-11-712R, June 14, 2011, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11712r.pdf (accessed June 13, 2013).

[5]Tom Daschle, Scott Greenberger, and Jeanne Lambrew, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), pp. 172–173.

[6]David Leonhardt, “After the Great Recession,” The New York Times, April 28, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/magazine/03Obama-t.html (accessed June 13, 2013).

[7]Biotechnology Healthcare, “Rethinking Comparative Effectiveness Research,” June 2009, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2799075/pdf/bth06_2p035.pdf (accessed June 13, 2013).

[8]Helen Evans, “Comparative Effectiveness in Health Care Reform: Lessons from Abroad,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2239, February 4, 2009, note 3, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/02/comparative-effectiveness-in-health-care-reform-lessons-from-abroad.

[9]Kathryn Nix, “Comparative Effectiveness Research Under Obamacare: A Slippery Slope to Health Care Rationing,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2679, April 12, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/04/comparative-effectiveness-research-under-obamacare-a-slippery-slope-to-health-care-rationing.