Short Takes On News & Events

Berwick Turns 65: Medicare Chief First To Join Medicare

By Phil Galewitz

September 8th, 2011, 3:08 PM

Friday is a big day for Medicare chief Donald Berwick.

He turns 65 and will become the first head of the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled to be a beneficiary at the same time.

“I’m excited,” he told KHN in a pre-birthday interview Thursday. “I feel like I’m in my 20s still. I don’t feel 65. It’s going to be a great day to celebrate.”

Berwick, who was appointed administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2010, began the process of signing up for Medicare earlier this week. He hopes to have his Medicare card within a few weeks, although he said he’s getting no special treatment in the application process.

Will it change his perspective on running a program that covers 47 million people?

“Mostly no, I have had the beneficiaries in my mind from the day I started and now I am one of them,” he said.

Berwick started signing up for Medicare by going on the Medicare web site and getting his birth certificate to send to the Social Security Administration. “It’s been fun to learn how to enroll,” he said.

Medicare recommends that people like Berwick who still have a job with health benefits sign up for Medicare Part A (the hospital coverage) when turning 65. There is no monthly premium, and the coverage can help pick up some of the costs of hospital care not covered by an employer-sponsored health plan. Because he has health coverage through his job, Berwick doesn’t have to worry about signing up for Medicare Part B, which covers physician and other services and charges a premium. He also can defer deciding between traditional Medicare fee for service and a privately run Medicare managed care plan.

Berwick is one of 2.8 million people expected to enroll in Medicare this year.

Photo by Jessica Marcy/KHN

On a business trip last month to visit hospitals and health centers in rural Oregon, Berwick spent an hour at a senior center watching a CMS employee teach 200 beneficiaries about the program, including how to enroll.  He said he watched and took notes as much more than a casual observer.

“I learned about how much choice there was and the many options in the kinds of coverage and the many online resources,” Berwick said. “I really felt like a consumer with power.”

While some people may dread turning 65 as another milepost of getting older, the white-haired Berwick is only looking ahead.

He plans a birthday dinner at a restaurant in Washington with his wife, who works in Massachusetts. They are getting ready for the birth of their second grandchild in October.

“I look forward to it,” he said of joining Medicare. “I am lucky, I am employed and love my work and have no plans to retire. I see myself working for a long time, but it’s good to know Medicare is there. It’s security and it feels safe.”

5 Responses to “Berwick Turns 65: Medicare Chief First To Join Medicare”

  1. The kind of things Berwick says he’s learning – how to enroll, the choices offered – worry me. It worries me that the guy who runs the system doesn’t know those those kind of basic things after a year on the job!!!!

  2. Kathi Harrington says:

    Berwick is typical of what’s wrong with America’s leadership – he’s the man at the top of medicare and yet knows very little about how it works. Those of us who are struggling to remain in the middle class and are approaching 65 don’t have the luxury of not knowing the basics. Our lives depend on it.

  3. Peter Brown says:

    It is a mistake to equate not knowing the specifics of signing up with not knowing how the system works. Berwick is the best possible person for the job he has and is more likely than anyone else to have both the imagination and the experience to be able to lead the CMS.

  4. Sarah says:

    Don Berwick is the only qualified person in the U.S. to do the job! Happy Birthday to the fellow who brought us a strong focus on quality care – health of the population, experience of care, and controlling costs.

  5. Richard says:

    I think Dr Berwick is an incredible leader and visionary, but I wish he wouldn’t refer to himself as a “consumer.” Healthcare is a right that should be extended to everyone. For-profit health insurance companies are controlling access to this right and we don’t need them anymore. An American solution would be a universal healthcare system based on expanding and improving Medicare to all inhabitants of our great country.