WASHINGTON — After nearly four years without a permanent administrator, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is getting a new leader.
President Obama has nominated Donald Berwick, a pediatrician known for his work to improve patient care, as the next CMS administrator. If confirmed by the Senate later this year, he will be the agency’s first permanent administrator since Mark McClellan stepped down in October 2006.
The appointment comes at a time when CMS is facing a critical overhaul, and health care industry insiders say Berwick will have a massive undertaking ahead of him.
With health care reform about to begin, CMS is expected to play an integral part in implementing changes that will significantly expand the role of public health programs in covering the uninsured.
When it was reported at the end of March that the president would tab Berwick for the CMS post, several health care experts and colleagues said they did not expect him to encounter any roadblocks during the Senate confirmation hearing.
“I’ve known him for 20 years, and I think this is a very positive development,” Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University in Atlanta and executive director of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, told the American Medical Association’s American Medical News. “It’s a signal that the administration wants to do something major with quality systems, delivery system reform and financial payment reform.”
Berwick is currently president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nonprofit in Cambridge, Mass., that works to eliminate what it calls “needless” problems within health care systems around the world, including unnecessary deaths, suffering and waste.
Berwick is also a professor of pediatrics and health care policy at Harvard Medical School and a professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Senate Republicans have said that no matter whom the president nominates to head CMS, they will scrutinize the nominee and ensure he or she is the right person for the job.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), the ranking GOP member on the Senate Finance Committee, which will consider the nomination ahead of a full Senate vote, noted that Berwick would oversee programs serving nearly a third of all Americans.
He says the nominee will face tough questions related to the administration’s enactment of the health reform package, which was universally opposed by Republican lawmakers.
“This is always a big job, but the administration of health care reform, which includes implementing hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare cuts and the biggest expansion of Medicaid in its history, will make it more challenging than ever,” Grassley says. “The finance committee vetting will need to explore the nominee’s preparedness for the enormous challenges that face the agency.”
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