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First Day on the Job for Berwick, Varmus

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

July 12, 2010 -- Donald M. Berwick was sworn in as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Monday afternoon in Boston by Health and Human Services Regional Director Chris Hager, a CMS spokesman said.

Berwick will make his first public appearance at a press briefing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to help unveil the final version of regulations spelling out how doctors and hospitals must use health information technology to qualify for higher Medicare and Medicaid payments.

Monday also marks the first day on the job for Harold Varmus as director of the National Cancer Institute. Varmus was scheduled to hold a town hall meeting at NCI Monday afternoon in which he would give a brief talk, take questions, and greet NCI staff.

Neither Varmus nor Berwick went through the Senate confirmation process—Varmus because his position is not subject to Senate confirmation, and Berwick because he was installed in office through a recess appointment.

Berwick is scheduled to appear 10 a.m. Tuesday at a press briefing at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building. Also scheduled to appear are HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology David Blumenthal and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

In addition to defining the "meaningful use" of information technology to assure bonus payments, the final regulations announced Tuesday will address the certification of technology. To qualify for the higher payments, providers not only must make meaningful use of IT but also use certified technology. The certification process aims to assure that various types of information systems can be used together.

Hospitals say the proposed version of the IT regs makes it far too hard to qualify for the higher payments. The reg in its proposed form would discourage the adoption of health IT and delay the efficiencies and higher quality care the technology is supposed to foster, hospitals add. It's widely expected that the final regs will ease the standards for qualifying for the payments.

To the extent Berwick is the mouthpiece for such a message it will get him out of the starting blocks with some soothing news to deliver. He's facing a hostile climate, at least where congressional Republicans are involved. "I feel sorry for those seniors who maybe have a family history of Alzheimer's and they're, you know, maybe getting into their 70s, and what kind of care they're going to get," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., on the Fox Business Network on Friday, referring to the Berwick appointment. "They're going to be thrown under the bus!"

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