Harvard professor Don Berwick resigns as Medicare chief

WASHINGTON — Don Berwick, the Harvard professor who was tapped by the Obama administration to lead the overhaul of the massive Medicare and Medicaid programs, resigned today — just months before he was scheduled to leave his post.

Despite his reputation as a health care innovator, Berwick became enmeshed in the divisive politics over revamping the country’s health care system. At least 42 Republican senators had vowed to block his confirmation, prompting Obama in July 2010 to use a recess appointment last year to install him in office.

By law, Berwick’s temporary appointment as the top administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would have expired at the end of the year.

President Obama said today that he would nominate Berwick’s top deputy, Marilyn Tavenner, a former health official from Virginia, to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — which serves about one out of every three Americans, including seniors, children and the poor.

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Berwick was a controversial figure among Republicans mainly because of his praise for Britain’s single-payer system, which raised the specter among the GOP of socialized medicine as the Obama administration began rolling out federal health care legislation.

In May of last year, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts went to Berwick’s defense, telling critics to “take a deep breath and look at the facts about this public servant who is beyond debate a dedicated pediatrician and nationally recognized expert on health care quality.’’

With Berwick’s nomination in doubt, Obama appointed the Harvard-trained doctor while Congress was in recess.

“Republican lockstep stalling of Don’s nomination was a case study in cynicism and one awful example of how not to govern,’’ Kerry said in July last year, following the appointment. “The president did the right thing making this a recess appointment.’’

Prior to leading the CMS, Berwick served as president of the Cambridge-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement and was a professor of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Berwick received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, and holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School.

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