Tuesday, December 6, 2011

All Visions Must Pass: Donald Berwick Departs the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

Dr. Donald Berwick, now departed from his 17-month recess appointment as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)--he was unable to win confirmation by the US Senate--took some parting shots at "waste" in the system in a New York Times interview. Berwick, who oversaw the spending of more than $800 billion in outlays, declared that as much as 30 percent of health spending is wasted. OK, we're all against waste, but who defines it? The federal government? Has Uncle Sam earned the credibility to make judgements about waste?

His valedictory interview notwithstanding, Berwick is probably best known, to admirers and detractors alike, as America's leading fan of Britain's National Health Service (NHS). As he said to an NHS audience in July 2008, "I am romantic about the NHS; I love it." And he went on to flatter the NHS in rapturous terms: "You are unified, movingly and most nobly, by your nation's promise to make good on an idea: the idea that health care is a human right.  The NHS is a bridge--a towering bridge--between the rhetoric of justice and the fact of justice."

The NHS does, indeed, represent a kind of pinnacle. It is the culmination of a belief system that originated in 19th century Germany. In the early part of that century, G.W.F. Hegel lyricized about the wondrous justice-giving powers of the "universal" bureaucratic state, not so different from the government of his Prussian homeland. Later in that century, another Prussian, Bismarck, reified and solidified Hegel's idealism into the practical reality of a bureaucratic welfare state; neo-Hegelians finally had achieved their utopian vision. For them, the welfare state became a secularized godhead, boasting the power to transubstantiate mere tax money into glorious and ennobling political structures. In the US, neo-Hegelians called themselves Progressives; the English word "Progressive" was inspired by the German Deutsche Fortschrittpartei, the German Progress Party, founded in 1861.

Of course, American progressives, yearning to enact their vision of modernization and uplift, were not inspired only by Bismarck, they were inspired also by the humming factories that improved productivity and generated prosperity. So Henry Ford, having mastered the assembly line, became a hero, as did Frederick Winslow Taylor, the pioneering "efficiency expert." Across the political spectrum, right to left, from the US to the USSR, "Fordism" and "Taylorism" were admired for their industrializing powers. For their part, American progressives reasoned that if factories were efficient thanks to Ford and Taylor, they could be made even more efficient without the "waste" of capitalist competition. And they further reasoned that people like themselves could make the whole nation more efficient. As John Dewey wrote in his 1935 book, Liberalism and Social Action, "Organized social planning . . . is now the sole method of social action."

So it made sense that healthcare, too, should be planned, modernized, and socialized. The Beveridge Report, produced by the British government in 1942 as the blueprint for the NHS, asserted that national healthcare should be seen as part of a "comprehensive policy of social progress."

Later in the 20th century, Dr. Berwick was swept up by the same progressive idea: planners would improve social welfare and, at the same time, eliminate waste. Berwick founded the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which self-described itself as follows:

IHI was founded in the late 1980s by Don Berwick and a group of visionary individuals committed to redesigning health care into a system no longer plagued by errors, waste, delay, and unsustainable social and economic costs.

Berwick has been open in his admiration of such contemporary efficiency experts as W. Edwards Deming and of companies that have streamlined "just in time" techniques, such as Toyota. And the progressive healthcare dream has stayed steady now for a century; Berwick's declaration that 30 percent of healthcare spending is "wasted," for example, is perfectly congruent with Barack Obama's 2008 promise to eliminate waste and so cut a family's healthcare spending by $2500, or one-third. The promise still stands, of course, even if we are still waiting for the facts to catch up. Indeed, the lag time might lead some to conclude that perhaps the government is not the efficiency machine that Berwick and Obama might wish it to be. The progressive dream of enlightened management, it seems, will never die.

Some things have changed, to be sure, in the 100 years since Teddy Roosevelt ran for president on the Progressive ticket, promising, among other platform planks, national health insurance. For one thing, progressives have figured out how to profit from their progressivism; Berwick's IHI paid him more than $2.3 million in 2008. Indeed, such a fat paycheck is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of an age in which policy experts become rich as well as powerful. White House healthcare czarina Nancy-Ann DeParle, to name another, received $5.8 million as a consultant to health insurance companies in the three years prior to her entry into the Obama administration.

Yet at the same time, there can be no doubt that Berwick has full faith in the transcendence of what he has been doing. As he told the Times, "We are a nation headed for justice, for fairness and justice in access to care." Indeed, he continued, putting the cause of providing universal health insurance in grandiose terms: "There is a moon shot here." By "moon shot," Berwick meant a project that can grip the popular imagination the way it has gripped the imagination of so many Democratic Party intellectuals. Yet if most Americans don't see health insurance in such lustrous terms, well, that is indeed a problem for the latest generation of Hegelians.

In fact, Berwick lamented that the public hadn't yet grasped the greatness of the vision: "Somehow we have not put together that story in a way that's compelling."

One problem, perhaps, lies in Berwick's zeal for health rationing, seen as a necessary component of health justice. Yet zeal is not shared by most Americans. So when Berwick declared in 2009, "The decision is not whether or not we will ration care--the decision is whether we will ration with our eyes open," those words were widely used against him. But Berwick has, in fact gone even further, past the political point of no return:

Any healthcare funding plan that is just, equitable, civilized and humane must, must redistribute wealth from the richer among us to the poorer and the less fortunate. Excellent healthcare is by definition redistributional.

Alas, poor Berwick--we knew him too well. Whereas he saw government-run healthcare as taking us toward the light, others saw darkness. The NHS, for example, looks bad to most Americans with access to Google. Even the briefest search yields up headlines such as this, from the December 1 edition of The Telegraph, the UK newspaper: "Loved ones not always told their relative is on controversial 'death pathway'/ NHS doctors are failing to inform up to half of families that their loved ones have been put on a scheme to help end their lives, the Royal College of Physicians has found." It seems that tens of thousands of NHS patients are being put on what the Telegraph called the "death pathway," as a play on what the NHS calls--using a euphemism for euthanasia--the "care pathway." According to NHS rules caregivers [sic] are allowed to withhold care from terminal patients after receiving consent from the family. Yet a government audit found that some 2500 families, in the city of Liverpool alone, were not so consulted.

It's from reports such as this that some in the US get the idea that eliminating "waste" is code-talk for eliminating patients. So maybe "death panels" in the US aren't such a stretch, after all. That's why most American advocates of national health insurance tend to shy away from any comparison to the NHS. But not, as we have seen, Dr. Berwick, who has always been forthright in his NHS-philia. Most likely that's why he wasn't confirmed by the Senate; when his recess appointment to CMS expired, he had to go back to Cambridge.

No doubt Berwick will soon find a way to pass his vision on to a new generation, but after a century of progressive activism on healthcare, perhaps he--and all of us--might think about a new course of action. It seems that US healthcare advocates have hit the point of diminishing returns; after all, we have had mostly universal healthcare coverage for decades now. Medicaid and Medicare were created in the 60s, and EMTALA gave everyone the right to emergency-room treatment, without regard for ability to pay. Yet such piecemeal approaches did not meet Berwickian efficiency standards, it would seem, and so the Obama administration charged ahead with the Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010. And later that same year, the Democrats, of course, were clobbered in the midterm, and now "Obamacare" is still deeply under water politically.

So maybe the Hegelian-Bismarckian-Berwickian vision has played itself out. Maybe it's in the nature of the health-and-welfare state these days that it a) can't keep up with fast-fluxing market forces, b) can't keep up with the even faster changes in social networking and computerized transparency and publicity, c) can't withstand the onslaught of special interests, who honeycomb any kind of legislation with baroque and unpopular mandates and set-asides, d) can't come to grips with the reality that lawyers and judges end up running any public system these days, and e) can't comprehend the fact that the real problem with a disease such as Alzheimer's is not the financing of the disease but, rather, the disease itself. And therefore the whole idea of securing additional healthcare finance for the population is less important than the idea of securing the medicine to keep people healthy in the first place. The best way to eliminate "waste" in the healthcare system is to eliminate the need for so many people to be processed through the system.

We shouldn't be surprised if Berwick writes a book about his experiences in Washington. Here's a suggested title, although he probably won't use it: All Things Must Pass.


  1. You wrote:
    "d) can't come to grips with the reality that lawyers and judges end up running any public system these days,"

    When I first read the above, I read it as "ruining." Truth be told, yes lawyers and judges are running the public system, ....... and with their sticky fingers, ruining it for the common good of we the people!
    Very thoughtful column Jim.

  2. Just a pure hatchet job. The attack on England´s National Health Service is complete cherry-picking bullshit. Did you see the opening ceremony at the Olympics paying homage to the NHS? Do you mention that the NHS is so popular in England that the iron bitch Margaret Thatcher didn´t even dare mess with it. You are a disgrace as a reporter - a shill for the Health industry in America that is ripping off its patients for billions! Shame on you!