Don Berwick Speaks!

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Just not to me – or any other media types for that matter. The new head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid has, until today, been kept under virtual lock and key by the Obama Administration. He was installed via recess appointment, circumventing the Senate confirmation process, which would have included a public hearing. He hasn’t granted any interviews since taking the job, per instructions from the White House.

Well, today Berwick had a bit of a coming out party, giving his first public speech of his tenure. The place CMS opted to have him make his debut? A conference sponsored by the health insurance lobby.

To mark the occasion of Berwick’s first public speech since taking over CMS, I have a profile of him up on today. My story includes some tidbits about Berwick that you might not know. He knee has taught him a lot about how the health care system works; he loves Toyota; and he thinks hospital visiting hour policies aren’t fair to patients.

At the AHIP conference today – focusing on changes to Medicaid and Medicare brought about by the new Affordable Care Act (ACA) – Berwick talked a bit about growing up as the son of a family doctor in the small town of Moodus, CT. He outlined his broad goals for CMS including: better care for patients, better health for the U.S. population as a whole, and reducing costs. Berwick also told the health insurance executives and employees in attendance, “My door is wide open.” He said, “We don’t have time to play games,” implying that health insurance companies that try to preserve the status quo will be left behind in the coming sea change brought about by the ACA. But, “those who welcome change and agree to lead it will find in me a friend,” he said.

For anyone predicting the heavy criticism already leveled at Berwick – that he intends to “ration” American health care, for instance – would cause him pare down his goals and aspirations for CMS, today’s speech sent the opposite message. “We can and we will play tough,” said Berwick. “The ACA is not just an answer. It’s a question…Will we redesign health care in America?”

During the question and answer session following his speech, one audience member talked about how disheartening is was for the insurance industry to be vilified by Democrats during the health reform debate and asked how Berwick would turn this around. “Let’s look ahead, not back,” he replied.