Adding a new target to the right-wing media's witch hunt of President Obama's appointees, WorldNetDaily and Fox Nation attacked comments about race and life expectancy by Donald Berwick, whom Obama will reportedly nominate to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. However, Berwick's comments on race being a factor in a patient's life expectancy are supported by government statistics, and Berwick has received praise from groups such as the AARP and AMA, as well as Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.
Federal statistics support Berwick's remarks about life expectancy and race
Fox Nation: "Obama's Medicare Appointee: U.S. Health Care Is Racist." On March 30, The Fox Nation linked to and excerpted from a WorldNetDaily article about Berwick. From the Fox Nation front page:
WND: Berwick "claimed patients' quality of care in the U.S. medical system is currently measured by the 'color of their skin.' " From the March 29 WorldNetDaily article, by Aaron Klein, headlined "Obama Medicare pick urges 'radical transfer of power'; Claims U.S. system measures patients' quality of care by 'color of their skin' ":
President Obama's reported pick to run Medicare and Medicaid, Donald Berwick, has argued for a "radical transfer of power" in the health industry and claimed patients' quality of care in the U.S. medical system is currently measured by the "color of their skin," WND has learned.
Berwick: "[H]ow long [a] patient is likely to live" can be determined in part by the "color of their skin." Klein's article used quotes from a blog post that reported comments Berwick made at a 2008 conference. As the context of the comments shows, Berwick was making the point that there is a well-documented racial disparity in life expectancies in the United States. From Klein's article:
At a 2008 Families USA conference speech documented by Health Beat, a healthcare industry blog, Berwick slammed the U.S. health-care system as "bloated" and "broken."
The blog points out Berwick noted, "There's a myth that American healthcare is the best in the world."
"It's not," he continued. "It's not even close."
"It's thought to be the best because we have the most health care," Berwick stated. However, he said, "40 percent of the care that Americans actually need is not received. ... Cost is the barrier.
"Here is a question I often ask my students," added Berwick. "When you meet a new patient, what is the one test that you could do that would tell you how long that patient is likely to live?
"Typically, students answer: 'Ask them if they smoke,' or 'Test their blood sugar.'
"No," Berwick said. "Just look at the color of their skin."
HHS: Life expectancy shorter for black women and men than white counterparts. From "Health, United States, 2009," a report on "the health status of the Nation" produced by the Department of Health and Human Services for the president and Congress:
In 2006, life expectancy at birth was 76 years for white males compared with 70 years for black males, and was 81 years for white females compared with 77 years for black females (data table for Figure 16). Life expectancy at birth increased more for the black than for the white population between 1990 and 2006 (Figure 16). During this period, the gap in life expectancy between white males and black males narrowed from 8 years to 6 years (data table for Figure 16). During the same period, the gap in life expectancy between white females and black females decreased from 6 years to 4 years.
The gap in life expectancy between white and black people at age 65 years is narrower than at birth. Since 1990, the difference in life expectancy at age 65 between white males and black males has remained a stable 2-year difference. In 2006, life expectancy at age 65 was 17 years for white males and 15 years for black males. The difference in life expectancy between white and black females has also been stable in recent years; in 2006, at age 65, white females and black females could expect to live an additional 20 and 19 years, respectively.
An accompanying graphic, sourced to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, illustrates the disparity:
AMA, AARP, and Coburn have all praised Berwick
Coburn called Berwick "more than qualified." In a March 29 Tribune Newspapers article, Coburn reportedly commented that "it's way too early to tell" if Republicans would oppose Berwick and that he "think[s] he's more than qualified ... I want to sit down and talk with him." [Los Angeles Times, 3/29/10]
AMA has praised and partnered with Berwick. A March 29 Bloomberg article reported: "The American Medical Association, the Chicago-based group for physicians, also praised Berwick. Nancy Nielsen, the association's previous president, said in an e-mailed statement that Berwick is 'well-respected' and doctors 'look forward to working with him at CMS on implementation of the new health- reform law.' " [Bloomberg, 3/29/10]
In 2008, Dr. Cecil B. Wilson, a member of the AMA's board of trustees, stated during a speech at the Florida Health Care Coalition's annual conference:
One of our efforts is our partnership with the Institute for Health Care Improvement (IHI) headed by Dr. Donald Berwick.
The IHI has promoted the idea that six interventions, done routinely and completely in the hospital setting, could save as many as 100,000 lives in a single year. These interventions include:
- Deploy Rapid Response Team at the first sign of patient decline;
- Deliver Reliable, Evidence-Based Care for Acute Myocardial Infarction to prevent deaths from heart attack;
- Prevent Adverse Drug Events by implementing medication reconciliation;
- Prevent Surgical Site Infection by reliably delivering the correct preoperative care;
- And Prevent Central Line Infections and Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia by implementing a series of interdependent, science-based steps for each.
Some or all of these interventions have been adopted by 3000 hospitals across the United States. [AMA website, 3/5/08]
AARP vice president: "[A]ppointment is welcome news to Medicare beneficiaries." Bloomberg also reported that AARP executive vice president for policy John Rother said that Berwick's Institute for Healthcare Improvement saved "lives and money" and that his "appointment is welcome news to Medicare beneficiaries, as it signals that quality and safety will be at the top of the agenda." [Bloomberg, 3/29/10]
American Hospital Association: Berwick "led a movement ... to provide better, safer care." Bloomberg further reported: "Rich Umbdenstock, chief executive officer of the American Hospital Association, the Chicago-based trade group, said in an e-mail that Berwick has 'led a movement' through his work at the institute to 'engage hospitals, doctors, nurses and other health-care providers in the continuous quest to provide better, safer care.' " [Bloomberg, 3/29/10]
AcademyHealth praises Berwick. Tribune Newspapers also reported:
Berwick has spent much of the past 15 years focusing on improving the quality of care in hospitals and his knowledge of them -- coupled with his experience as a practicing physician -- will lend credibility to efforts to coax reforms out of the industry, said David Helms, CEO of AcademyHealth (cq), a professional society for health services researchers.
"I think Don Berwick as a practicing physician will be able to communicate with other practicing physicians in a way that's persuasive," Helms said. [Los Angeles Times, 3/29/10]
Kaiser Health News praised Berwick as "an inspirational leader." In an interview republished on March 28, Kaiser Health News reported that Berwick "for two decades has been both a bit of a nag and an inspirational leader encouraging front-line health workers and health care leaders to make changes to reduce hospital deaths and complications as well as making health systems more efficient." The article went on to report: "Berwick, 63, has been a big promoter of efforts to reduce hospital infections, revamp the Medicare payment system to produce better patient outcomes and make public information on hospitals and doctor performance."
Berwick received praise from Harvard health policy expert. Bloomberg further reported:
Berwick was one of the first U.S. researchers to introduce industrial quality controls into U.S. health care, said Lucian Leape, a Harvard health policy expert on the board of Berwick's institute.
Close to 3,000 hospitals signed up for the institute's 100,000 Lives Campaign that challenged hospitals to prevent deaths by carrying out measures such as making sure that patients get enough antibiotics before surgery, Leape said.
Berwick was the "intellectual leader" behind the 1999 report from the U.S. government-chartered Institute of Medicine, an advisory body, "To Err is Human," which found that as many as from 44,000 to 98,000 people die each year because of medical errors. That report brought the issue of medical safety to the attention of the U.S. public, Leape said. [Bloomberg, 3/29/10]
Former editor of Medical Economics magazine: "Berwick is a giant intellect, universally respected in the healthcare field." In a post on BNET.com, Ken Terry, former senior editor at Medical Economics magazine and author of the book Rx For Health Care Reform, wrote: "If Republicans were able to look beyond the ends of their noses, they would see in Berwick a giant intellect, universally respected in the healthcare field, who is as nonpartisan as they come." Terry went on to assert that Berwick "has saved countless lives through his organization's work with hospitals to improve their processes in very specific ways, such as reducing central-line infections and ensuring that prophylactic antibiotics are administered before surgery."
Consumers Union: Berwick is "a spectacular appointment." The New York Times reported: "Steven D. Findlay, a health policy analyst at Consumers Union, said: 'This would be a spectacular appointment. Don has been an intellectual force in health care for decades. He helped forge many ideas incorporated in the new health care law.' " [The New York Times, 3/27/10]
Dartmouth health policy center director praised Berwick. The New York Times also reported: "Dr. Elliott S. Fisher, director of the Center for Health Policy Research at Dartmouth Medical School, said Dr. Berwick was 'a visionary leader who can motivate people to change.' " [The New York Times, 3/27/10]
Right-wing media's witch hunt for Obama's nominees
Attack on Berwick is latest in a long line. Media Matters for America has documented the conservative media's relentless attacks on Obama's nominees, including faith council member Rev. Jim Wallis, Obama's judicial nominees, Advisory Council of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships member Harry Knox, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, White House official Buffy Wicks, former White House communications director Anita Dunn, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools director Kevin Jennings, White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs director Cass Sunstein, White House science and technology adviser John Holdren, and others.