Washington Needs to Call a Doctor

If you want a simple shorthand for the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., I can do it in two words: Don Berwick.
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If you want a simple shorthand for the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., I can do it in two words: Don Berwick.

Some of you may be nodding your head in vigorous agreement. Others of you may say, oh there's Dan carrying water for the Obama administration. And most of you are probably scratching your heads and asking, who? I only had a vague sense of who Dr. Berwick was until I sat down with him recently for an extensive interview for my weekly news magazine program on HDNet. And I would contend that the Beltway Establishment that chewed him up and spit him out almost certainly did so without taking the time to get to know him at all. What a pity.

Dr. Don Berwick, a pediatrician by training, came to Washington with a sterling reputation among people who actually know something about health care. He had helped pioneer the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, which may sound like another pointy-headed D.C. think tank, but really is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization lauded the world over for helping make health care systems better. For example, they have worked with hospitals on common sense techniques to reduce hospital infections. These are serious people who are welcomed in hospitals and clinics across the country and around the world.

When President Obama forwarded Dr. Berwick's name to head the little-known but very important Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the appointment was controversial from the start. This is the part of the federal government that runs health care already for 100 million Americans and it is also tasked with carrying out key aspects of Obama's health care law. So most of the animus had nothing to do with Dr. Berwick himself, rather it was Republican senators who were unhappy with Obamacare. That's their right. Win elections. Change the law. But the idea that you would withhold a clearly qualified candidate from government service is not the answer. Of course, the opposition had to make a case against Berwick so they glommed on to some vague statements he made about "rationing" and the British National Health Service. Buzzwords, regardless of context, pass for political discourse these days.

So President Obama used a recess appointment for Berwick and when that term was finished, there was no chance he would get the now 60 votes required to do almost anything in the Senate these days. So he packed his bags and headed back to Boston. Folks, this is crazy. And this is not just about Dr. Berwick and his intriguing ideas about how to make health care better and more affordable. We have serious problems in this country that need fixing and we need smart, thoughtful people to serve in government. Someday there will be a Republican president and in the political arms race that is Washington today, I would not be surprised if the Democrats resorted to the same tactics if they could be shown to have worked.

I've been covering Washington for a long time. Highly partisan posturing and selfishness is not new but it's never been this bad. In the '60s, civil rights legislation was highly controversial and public opinion was divided. In the end, office holders from both parties put their differences aside and worked out a solution in the best interest of the people and the country as a whole by passing the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. One thing is certain, in those days, a man with Dr. Berwick's qualifications would have had a confirmation hearing and almost certainly passed the Senate regardless of whether he was appointed by a Democrat or a Republican.

Dr. Berwick told me we need a lot more honesty in addressing the inadequacies in our health care system. We need to make the system as a whole work better, for people who see problems to not be afraid to come forward with their ideas. (The Obama administration's record on coming down on whistleblowers could take a lesson from this as well). Dr. Berwick doesn't have all the answers. He'll be the first to tell you that. And our government has worked best when we have vigorous debates. No political party holds a monopoly on wisdom. But the debate must be of substance. It's easy to cripple a complex thought with a pungent sound bite in our current media environment. That might help you win the news cycle but it won't mean your mother will have a safer -- or less expensive -- stay in the hospital.

Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. This program is now available on iTunes. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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