Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Awful Dichotomy Between Health Care Politics and Policy

Amy Goldstein has an important article in today’s Washington Post detailing the place Don Berwick, the Medicare and Medicaid administrator, finds himself in.

It is all but certain he will have to leave his post at year’s end, when his recess appointment expires, because the Senate will not confirm him for a lack of Republican support.

Berwick is one of the most respected health care experts in the country—his career has been dedicated to improving quality first and with that the cost of care. With the new law giving his agency more opportunities to experiment with new approaches and the ability to more quickly implement the things that work, he was the ideal choice.

But with the Democrats ramming the law through without a political consensus to support it, Berwick also became the political whipping boy for opponents to pile on. That he has been willing to point to the things that work in places like Britain only gave the political opportunists plenty of red meat to throw into an already red hot ideological debate.

In my mind, the great frustration in health care is that we really aren’t so far away from being able to make the system far better than it is—in both its quality and its cost. To test and perfect the best ideas we need to be willing to try new things—many of which won’t work but can form the basis of finding out what does work.

His proposed Accountable Care Organization (ACO) rules were a disaster and he should have known better. But there is also no reason why that failure can’t lead to a better outcome—if finding the right answer is what we are all ultimately interested in.

But, particularly in this red hot political environment made more red hot by one side always more willing to jam their ideas down the other side’s throat—whether that be a new health care law or a debt ceiling solution—people like Berwick get caught up in the bigger political fight.

My sense is that a Republican President, as much as a Democratic one, could have as easily appointed Don Berwick CMS administrator.

People say Don Berwick’s failing is that he is a “political neophyte.” It is the reality that once you get to Washington having the right answer isn’t enough—you have to be able to get it through the system. What does it say about Washington when a first class expert speaking what he sees in good faith as “truth” is seen to be naïve and can be quickly dismissed for “having a record on rationing care?”

But Don Berwick never had a chance in an environment where trying to find the right answers takes a back seat to scoring political points.

With health care costs and the nation’s debt crisis now coming to a place where change is unavoidable, we can’t afford this toxic take no prisoners political environment much longer.

In fact, August 2nd might be the day it all comes home to roost.


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