BOSTON — Don Berwick is proud to tell an audience how he was once called “the second most dangerous man in America.”
The label, he explains, was put on him by conservative commentator Glenn Beck at a time when Berwick, a Democrat now running for governor on a progressive platform, was playing a lead role in the early implementation of President Obama’s health care overhaul.
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Berwick’s praise for aspects of the British single-payer health care system also marked him for criticism from congressional Republicans, who said it showed his affinity for big government programs. They blocked his confirmation as permanent head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Berwick left Washington after a 17-month recess appointment.
With Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick not seeking re-election, the 67-year-old pediatrician from Newton decided last year to make his first run for elected office in Massachusetts, which in 2006 pioneered its own universal health insurance law that later became the model for the federal law.
“This is a state that does get things done,” he recently told an audience at Suffolk University.
Born in New York and raised in a small Connecticut town, Berwick earned degrees in 1972 from both Harvard Medical School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, setting in motion a dual career path as practicing physician and nationally recognized health care policy expert.
At Harvard, he served as both professor of pediatrics and a professor and lecturer in health care policy. In 1991, he became president and chief executive of the Cambridge-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement, where his work caught the eye of officials in the Obama administration and led to his appointment to CMS in 2010.
Beck and other conservatives saw him as an advocate for health care rationing, which he denied.
“I deeply believe health care is a human right.” Berwick said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We are the only Western democracy that hasn’t made it a human right.”
While optimistic the federal Affordable Care Act will succeed despite its shaky rollout, Berwick said an American version of single-payer health care should be considered an option in light of high costs and inefficiencies associated with the current system.
“The single payer system is the plan B we should develop if we can’t execute properly the multi-payer system,” he said.
Berwick’s gubernatorial campaign faces enormous hurdles, not the least of which is qualifying for the September primary ballot by gaining support from at least 15 percent of the delegates to the Democratic state convention in June. Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steven Grossman are both seen as likely to win a significant share of delegates, leaving Berwick and the two other Democratic hopefuls, Juliette Kayyem and Joseph Avellone, to divvy up what’s left.
A Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll of 600 likely voters in early February found nearly three in four had never heard of Berwick. As he tries to become better known, he’s also seeking to build a platform beyond health care, his area of greatest expertise. To that end, he’s rolled out a series of position papers on education, transportation, energy and homelessness, among other issues.
Berwick is the only Democratic candidate for governor calling for outright repeal of the state law that authorizes up to three resort casinos and a slots parlor in Massachusetts.
While acknowledging that casino gambling could bring more jobs and tax revenues, “Nonetheless, I believe, the costs are simply too high for this to be the best step for our state,” he said.