President Obama’s nominee to run Medicare and Medicaid has declared his love for Britain’s health care system. Literally.
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The problem with any uniform medical guidance is that what’s good for the “average” patient may not be right for any given patient.
The irony in all of this is that Berwick, at times, has eloquently argued for what he called an “extremist” patient-centered approach to health care, in which hospitals wouldn’t restrict visiting hours or force patients to wear gowns. As he said in a speech to the American Board of Internal Medicine in 2008 of the experience of a patient at a hospital: “That’s what scares me: to be made helpless before my time, to be made ignorant when I want to know, to be made to sit when I wish to stand, to be alone when I need to hold my wife’s hand, to eat what I do not wish to eat, to be named what I do not wish to be named, to be told when I wish to be asked, to be awoken when I wish to sleep.”
Yet the term “patient-centered” is typically used by supporters of a free market approach to health care who argue for more individual choice and consumer empowerment. It’s hard to think of a health care system in the world that dehumanizes patients more than Berwick’s beloved British system.
In March 2009, a report found that up to 1,200 died as a result of “appalling standards of care” at just one hospital in Britain’s NHS. The Telegraph reported that “patients (were) left for hours in soiled bedclothes.…” In addition, “Patients described one ward as a ‘war zone’ and said people were often left in Stafford’s A&E (Accident and Emergency) for hours covered in blood and without pain relief, even though they had serious injuries. Others were left without food or drink, leading some to reportedly drink from vases when thirsty.”
In November, another report estimated that up to 400 patients a year died at two other hospitals, with similar conditions that included, according to the Telegraph, “lack of basic nursing skills, curtains spattered with blood on wards, mould in vital equipment and patients being left in A&E for up to ten hours.”
During the health care debate, Obama dismissed any attempt by Republicans to liken his vision to the British system. But Berwick’s nomination, which will have to be approved by the Senate, provides Republicans with ample fodder to make the connection.
On Wednesday night, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor for a half-hour along with fellow Republican Sens. Pat Roberts and John Barrasso to rip into Berwick’s positions, in what could be seen as the opening salvo in the nomination battle.
“Many of us are alarmed by the nominee’s focus on the British health care system,” McConnell said, and criticized Berwick for “applauding a system where care is denied, delayed, or rationed.”
McConnell also suggested that Obama intentionally delayed the Berwick appointment until after the passage of the health care law, because announcing his CMS pick during the debate would have confirmed Republican charges that Democrats were intent on rationing care.
Berwick will have to first pass muster with the Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.
Though the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court is likely to garner more attention, the Berwick pick could produce more fireworks. In Berwick’s case, there’s a long paper trail detailing his disturbing views on a wide range of matters relevant to the position he’s seeking.