Mulling Run For Gov., Berwick Says Government Can Be 'Productive Force'

Download Audio
Dr. Donald Berwick, who's mulling a run for Massachusetts governor, at WBUR. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Dr. Donald Berwick, who's mulling a run for Massachusetts governor, at WBUR. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Add another name to the list of possible candidates for Massachusetts governor in 2014: Dr. Donald Berwick, a Newton pediatrician and longtime Harvard professor who is one of the country's top experts in health care costs and health care quality. He says he's "strongly considering" getting into the race as a Democrat.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Berwick Wednesday and asked him why the governor's office appeals to him.

Berwick: A lot appeals to me about the governor's office. For example, I had this chance to work in Washington running the Medicare agency and I saw how good government can be. That is, how much productive force there can be in government for really helping relieve suffering and improving the well-being of people. I also saw how bad government can get: paralyzed, riven by contention. I think a lot of opportunity lies at the state level now, and I think productive state government — respecting the state employees, really working with vision — can get a ton done that can't be done at any other level. That's exciting to me.

Pfeiffer: You have extensive health care experience, not only as a doctor and from your work for the Obama administration, but as co-founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, your past work with Harvard Community Health Plan, your faculty work at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. Do you see that work being the focus of your governor work if you were to become governor?

In many ways, yes. First, I'm a pediatrician. When you think about kids and health, you're not thinking just about health care. A healthy kid requires good schools; confident, proud parents who can find a job when they need it; a safe environment; control of violence; a sense of safety. All of that is about society as a whole. So, yeah, that's my professional identity, that's my work. So this opportunity, if it should arise, to become governor, seems to me to be absolutely connected to this systemic thinking that I'm so involved in.

With your lifelong, intense focus on health care, is there a risk of you becoming a single-issue candidate?

What excites me about this possibility is the breadth of the opportunity for leadership at the state level across many, many sectors. As a pediatrician, I've had to deal with the circumstances in which children live across the board — education, environment, safety. And, as a leader in the health care improvement movement, believe me, I've been drawn heavily into policy, economics, the social system as a whole. So I feel prepared to be dealing with many different sectors.

There are so many other aspects of the governor's job, obviously, besides anything having to do with health, and even if you were to assign staff members to do those for you, you will be sucked into so many other things. Do you think you might end up not able to focus on health as much as you'd like?

Well, any governor now would have the responsibility to follow through on the health care scene, and here in Massachusetts what a wonderful table we've set. We've got these two laws now, the universal access law in 2006 and the law more addressing issues of cost more recently. We've got to make this work. Massachusetts is going to be closely watched, so that's going to be part of the job of any governor than gets elected.

Your name is well-known in the health care world but not particularly well-known to the general public. How much of an impediment do you see that as being?

I'm excited by that. I think I'm going to get a chance to meet lots of new people from new sectors and people from all over the state, and I'll listen carefully to their interests. I want to learn a lot about what's on people's minds. That's what democracy is, it seems to me: getting to know people and building their confidence and trust

You mentioned that you've seen both the good and bad of government. And when President Obama used his recess appointment to name you head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services [in 2010], you did that for a year-and-a-half but ended up resigning because of such Republican resistance to your appointment, to the idea of your nomination. How did that experience — that very politicized experience — factor into your desire to run?

I'm very grateful to President Obama for giving me that opportunity. I didn't resign willingly; I had to resign. The constitutional provision, the recess appointment he used, ran out. The clock ran out and the Republicans blocked me, so I had to leave. I loved the job. I loved being there. But, you know, Washington's stuck. What I saw, despite the immense pleasure I had in trying to work in that environment, which was really great — I saw the paralysis. I saw what happens when people don't get together. We're better than that in Massachusetts. We can do better that that. And getting everyone together to really create the world-class state that we can be, public-private, I think is a great opportunity. It energized me for that.

This would be your first step into elective politics. It can be grueling. It's a long process. How ready are you for that?

Well, I've done a lot of research, talking with lots of people. I think my eyes are wide open. I know it's tough, but it's tough in a good way. To make democracy work, you have to be out there with people and that's what the hard work is going to be.

Tough in a good way, but also very hard on people's personal lives sometimes.

Yeah, we thought about that. I have a wonderful family. My wife is very supportive. My kids are. And we thought this through and I think we all know this is a great place to go and I think it's going to be wonderful.

The next gubernatorial election isn't until late 2014, almost two years away, but possible candidates have already expressed interest. On the Republican side, Charlie Baker, who ran and lost in 2010. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and state Treasurer Steve Grossman. Could you mention a few people you'd like to see run or not see run?

I think this is a time to focus on my vision, my agenda, really leave discussion of other potential candidates for later on.

Is there anyone you would step aside for? Step out for?

I haven't thought about that right now. It's a position I really want to try to go for. I think I can do a good job and I'm excited by the possibility there and I'm going to focus on my agenda and what I can get done and on my learning.

This program aired on January 9, 2013.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



More from WBUR

Listen Live