DEBORAH AMOS, host:
President Obama has some key voters to reassure, and that is senior citizens. Yesterday in a town hall-style meeting, Mr. Obama tried to persuade seniors that the new health law will provide more benefits. But it's been a hard sell. And Republicans are keeping up the heat by attempting to block the president's choice to run the Medicare program.
NPR's Julie Rovner has the story.
JULIE ROVNER: The man President Obama has nominated to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is Donald Berwick. He's a Harvard pediatrician and founder of the Institute for Health Care Improvement. It's a think-tank which, for the past two decades, has worked to make health care safer, better and less expensive.
Among those singing Berwick's praises is Mark McClellan, who ran the agency known as CMS under President George W. Bush.
Mr. MARK MCCLELLAN (Former Head of CMS): Don is a person who's spent his entire career committed not just to talking about ways to make health care better, but actually helping organizations around the country change health care for the better. And that's exactly the kind of background that CMS needs right now in order to find better ways to support high quality care while saving money at the same time.
ROVNER: But though he may be a Republican, McClellan doesn't get to vote on whether Berwick gets the job or not. And many of the Republican senators who do get to vote have been accusing him and his boss of hidden agendas.
Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): Dr. Berwick is the perfect nominee for a president whose aim has always been to save money by rationing health care.
ROVNER: That's Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts. He and several other Republican senators have been hammering on the fact that among his voluminous writings, Berwick has praised the workings of Great Britain's National Health Service. They say that will lead him to try to impose a similar system here, or, as Wyoming Republican John Barrasso put it...
Senator JOHN BARRASSO (Republican, Wyoming): You say: Do I really want Dr. Berwick? Do I want somebody who is in love the National Health Service of Britain, someone who says they have incredible respect for the way it works and thinks it's the right way to go? Why would an American citizen want that person to be in charge of Medicare and Medicaid for this country?
ROVNER: In fact, while Berwick did profess his love for the British system two years ago, most of that speech consisted of ways that system could be improved. He hasn't advocated such a system here.
Berwick's nomination, meanwhile, has broad support from doctor, hospital and other health industry groups, all of whom have key financial stakes in how the new health law gets implemented. And it's no small job. Berwick would oversee nearly a trillion dollars a year of federal spending and play a key role in some major decisions about the just-passed health legislation.
In fact, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speculates that's exactly why Republicans are trying to slow walk Berwick's nomination.
Secretary KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Department of Health and Human Services): Some of the criticism directed against Dr. Berwick has little to do with him. It's sort of a re-litigation of the health reform legislation that now is the law of the land.
ROVNER: Holding up Berwick's appointment actually accomplishes several simultaneous goals for Republicans, says Neera Tanden, a former Obama health official now at the Center for American Progress.
Ms. NEERA TANDEN (Center for American Progress): One: It scares people about health care. Number two: It really deprives the agency of one of the premier thinkers in this strategy, because he's silent during the process. H can't write extensively. He can't comment, and he's not there.
ROVNER: Tanden, however, says Democrats have a problem of their own making, that while Republicans are keeping up the drumbeat against the new health law, Democrats have tried to move onto other subjects, particularly jobs.
Ms. TANDEN: And so the question for them is whether they can actually walk and chew gum: defend their vote, defend legislation and talk about economic issues in their district.
ROVNER: She says if they can't, things may turn grim for the Democrats come Election Day.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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