This afternoon, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) chief Don Berwick — who was recess appointed by President Obama — appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to answer questions about the agency’s progress in implementing the Affordable Care Act. Since Obama first nominated Berwick, Republicans accused the physician and former Harvard professor of rationing care, denying payment for treatments based on cost effectiveness and mirroring reform on the British model. They’ve repeatedly asked for Berwick to testify before Congress and today was their first opportunity to question him publicly.
Health care reporters expected the much-anticipated hearing to take the form of a duel between Republicans, who wanted to use their time to build opposition to the law, and Democrats, who saw this as an opportunity to make their argument against repealing it. But this morning, neither side had enough time to plead their case.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) ended the hearing after just an hour and 20 minutes, citing a pending vote. And even though senators from both parties had approximately five minutes each for questions, Republicans wasted a remarkable amount of time complaining they wouldn’t have enough time to ask their questions:
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): “There is at least 70 minutes of questioning here and we have votes starting at 11. So I was wondering if you you’d commit to appearing again before the committee after the Thanksgiving break so that we’d all had a chance to ask the questions we want to ask.”
SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R-KS): “Five minutes, obviously I can’t do this, I have other obligations, I have to leave and I apologize for that.”
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R-UT): “This is pathetic…my gosh we ought to have time to ask the most important man in America on health care questions that are relevant and important.”
SEN. JIM BUNNING (R-KY): “The opening statements took almost 30 minutes, although Senator Baucus won’t make a commitment to have you come back to testify before the end of the year, I can assure you will not get special treatment next year.”
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Baucus did not commit to holding hearings with Berwick after Thanksgiving, but said, “it is my intention to have a good number of hearings, because it’s very important for this committee to hear from the CMS administrator about his plans.”
During the hearing, Grassley also questioned Berwick about potential conflicts of interest, Hatch asked about so-called double counting of Medicare savings, and Bunning demanded to know why Berwick had accepted a recess appointment. On the Democratic side, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) had Berwick explain the consequences of repealing the law and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) extracted a commitment to focus on state innovation. You can read Berwick’s opening statement here.