- Photograph by Matt Craig/Harvard News Office
Donald Berwick ’68, M.D.-M.P.P. ’72, lecturer on healthcare policy and former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), will address Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine degree candidates on May 23 as Class Day speaker. Berwick has championed the interests of patients and consumers while simultaneously speaking out on the need to ration healthcare and cap spending.
A pediatrician by training, Berwick resigned from the Obama administration in November 2011—a month before his temporary appointment came to an end—in the face of Republican pledges to block his confirmation in the Senate. Berwick came under fire from Republicans because of ideological differences on healthcare spending; he has been vocal about his frustrations on the issue, calling it “wasteful,” and blaming in part the outdated regulations enforced by the agency he was appointed to lead.
Listing five reasons for what he described as the “extremely high level of waste”—overtreatment of patients, the failure to coordinate care, the administrative complexity of the healthcare system, burdensome rules, and fraud—Berwick told The New York Times: “Much is done that does not help patients at all, and many physicians know it.”
Obama nominated Berwick to lead CMS in April 2010, sidestepping Congress by giving him a temporary, recess appointment, a move that enraged Republicans and even angered some Democrats: “This recess appointment proves the Obama administration did not have the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and sought to evade a hearing,” said Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) to the Times in 2010.
As Medicare chief, Berwick urged doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic health records, merge their operations, and coordinate care to eliminate medical errors that kill thousands of patients each year. “Don Berwick did outstanding work at CMS,” White House deputy press secretary Jamie Smith said in November 2011 after Berwick announced his impending resignation, reported The Washington Post. “It’s unfortunate that a small group of senators obstructed his nomination, putting political interests above the best interests of the American people.”
The founder, former president and CEO of Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI)—a Cambridge nonprofit that trains medical professionals and has supported projects aimed at lowering the number of heart-failure readmissions, managing advanced disease, and palliative care—Berwick has long studied the management of healthcare systems (in 1983 he became Harvard Community Health Plan’s first vice president of quality-of-care measurement), placing emphasis on using scientific methods and evidence-based medicine to improve the quality and safety and lower the cost of healthcare. He has kept a low profile since his departure from CMS, focusing mainly on writing and speaking engagements as he determines his next steps, IHI’s media-relations firm told Harvard Magazine. Last month he spoke at an invitation-only conference of healthcare executives and investors sponsored by the private equity firm Health Evolution Partners, stating that he remains passionately committed to the goal of providing cost-effective, quality care to every American.
“We are a nation headed for justice, for fairness and justice in access to care,” Berwick said in 2011. “We are a nation headed for much more healing and much safer care. There is a moon shot here. But somehow we have not put together that story in a way that’s compelling.”