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Medicare chief grilled on the Hill

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Senate Republicans Tuesday took aim at President Obama's choice to oversee a key component of his health care overhaul plan, complaining about the way the choice was made and the lack of time given to lawmakers to question him.

The Senate Finance Committee hearing was the first Capitol Hill public appearance by Donald M. Berwick, the Harvard Medical School professor who now heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A lightning-rod for criticism for some of his past comments on health care rationing and economics, Mr. Berwick was named to the post this summer by Mr. Obama as a "recess appointment" — bypassing an expected Senate confirmation fight.

Republicans on the committee complained that, having finally gotten a chance to interrogate Mr. Berwick, the hearing was limited to an hour and each senator was only given five minutes for questions.

"This is pathetic," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. "My gosh, we ought to have time to ask the most important man in America on health care some questions."

Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grasssley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance panel, noted that it had been 134 days since Mr. Berwick was appointed to the job and Wednesday was the first day to question him in public session.

Trying to learn about implementation of the massive health care overhaul package plan in a one-hour hearing "is like trying to drain the Pacific Ocean with a thimble," Mr. Grassley said. "This can't just be a check-the-box exercise."

Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Berwick should get accustomed to testifying on Capitol Hill, predicting the the new GOP-led House of Representatives will be closely following his agency's work next year.

Asked why he agreed to a recess appointment from Mr. Obama, Mr. Berwick said it was "because the president asked me and I want to serve my country." He said he had responded to lawmakers' requests for information and clarity and had accepted every invitation from individual legislators for private meetings.

Facing far more friendly questioning from Senate Democrats, Mr. Berwick strongly defended Mr. Obama's health care overhaul plan. He said the law had already delivered a number of benefits, including help for seniors facing the dreaded "doughtnut hole" gap in purchasing prescription drugs under Medicare and employing more investigators and resources to root out Medicare fraud and abuse.

Asked by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, about talk among Republicans in Congress about repealing the new health care law in 2011, Mr. Berwick replied, "I can't think of a worse plan than repealing this law."

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