Don Berwick, a Democratic candidate for governor, grew up in a small town in Connecticut called Moodus, where he said he learned the value of looking out for each other. Berwick said he wants to bring that philosophy to the Governor’s Office.
“We were in it together,” Berwick said about his childhood in Moodus. “If someone was in trouble, you helped them out. And that is the type of community I want to be in and the one I want to create.”
Berwick, who spoke to the Gazette during a sit-down interview at his campaign office in Cambridge, said to create that type of community means not backing away from “conversations about poverty and poverty remediation, about social justice, the fact that we need to be a fair society in which the disparities we have aren’t acceptable.”
Berwick, a former pediatrician, professor and executive, is one of five candidates currently running for the Democratic nomination in the race to replace Gov. Deval Patrick. The other candidates are Joe Avellone, Attorney General Martha Coakley, state Treasurer Steve Grossman and Juliette Kayyem.
Berwick has been endorsed by local state Sen. Sonia Chang Díaz, a Jamaica Plain resident, who chairs his campaign. He said he has known Chang Díaz since “she was little,” as she grew up in the same town—Newton— he raised his kids in.
“She’s a magnificent public servant, in my view,” said Berwick. “She is courageous. She certainly is aligned in values with what I think.”
The interview touched on a vast array of themes, but one Berwick kept on returning to was his progressive values, saying his belief is that “government is an essential and valuable tool for helping us solve problems and create the communities in the Commonwealth that we want.”
Berwick spoke about how his time as the administrator of the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) prompted him to want to run for governor, his plan on lifting people out of poverty and his vision of health care reform, which includes having a single-payer system.
The candidate also discussed Jamaica Plain and its diversity, as well as several controversial topics, such as the state’s troubled health care rollout under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Berwick said he saw “the best and worst” of Washington, D.C. when he went down there to serve as the administrator of CMS. His appointment was blocked by Republicans, who criticized him on several fronts, including his favorable comments about the publicly funded British health care system. He was eventually installed during a recess appointment and served for a little more than a year.
“It was the best job I’ve ever had,” said Berwick. “I loved it. The workforce—5,500 people—they’re dedicated civil servants. They wanted to do the right thing. They had not had a leader for six years. Republicans wouldn’t approve one. They were hungry for leadership.”
Berwick talked with passion about protecting the “100 million American kids, elders and disable people” that fell under CMS care. He discussed installing new metrics and training systems at CMS and implementing the first part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which he said included putting millions of kids under their parents’ health care policy and putting prevention benefits into Medicare.
“The chance to contribute was terrific,” said Berwick.
He said dealing with members of Congress “one-on-one was fine,” as the elected officials care about their constituents and want to talk through what is important to them. But, Berwick said, the ethos and culture of Washington was “toxic” and “horrible.”
“I mean, people are not sitting down to solve problems,” he said. “They’re yelling at each other.”
But although he had to deal with the chaos of Washington, Berwick said, he also saw what was possible working in government in terms of social justice and equity. He had never thought of running for elected office until he returned from Washington.
“I think Massachusetts can be an example for the country and I want to help to do that,” said Berwick. “I think that the reinforcement of progressive values and problem solving is really crucial for the country right now and this state can execute them.”
One of those progressive values is lifting people out of poverty, which Berwick said there is “no simple answer” to. He said the approach is multi-faceted, including reestablishing social support systems that “allow people who are in a ditch to climb out of it.” Berwick talked about making sure people have the health care they need, including substance abuse and mental health treatment, and providing safety nets, such as food subsidies.
“I think it is unconscionable that we think about cutting food subsidies to people who are hungry today or that we would not be ambitious about minimum wage, which guarantees that framework to get people back into the mainstream economy,” he said.
Berwick said that the weakening of the safety net can be seen with JP’s Martha Eliot Health Center (MEHC) discontinuing service to adult patients, when the Gazette asked him about that issue later in the interview.
He said he doesn’t know the story why the service stopped, but said it’s part of a “national crisis” of not having a commitment to a progressive agenda. He said that includes not funding and supporting Medicaid and other federal safety nets.
“If they can’t get paid for doing [adult service], you can’t blame them for not doing it, I guess,” said Berwick. “This is a societal problem we need to fix. It’s going to be fixed by leadership.”
Berwick discussed having a systematic approach to job creation, building on the strength each community has. He pointed to Somerville, where he said Mayor Joe Curtatone is redeveloping Assembly Square into an “attractive physical structure” with a T stop and multi-use facilities that has affordable housing and retail space.
“That is going to add thousands of jobs to the community,” he said.
Berwick also pointed to New Bedford with its “great port” and Pittsfield with its “arts and heritage.”
“You find the strengths and you build around the strengths,” he said.
Berwick said that “education is key” to lifting people out of poverty. He talked about improving early education and the state and community college system to make sure graduates have the skills for the jobs that are available.
“It’s a matching problem. And education is a keystone there,” he said.
Berwick also said his progressive values are not a hindrance to a business-friendly environment. He said he wants to make sure that regulations that are “nonsense” and “hurt” the business community are removed.
“I did that at CMS,” said Berwick. “I went to hospital industry and asked them what are we doing that doesn’t help patients and gets in your way. And they came back with a long list. They were 80 percent right.”
He said what a lot of businesses are pushing for is lower health care costs. Berwick said they are too high and that “we are not getting value.” He said health care reform will be a “top priority” as governor.
That includes having a single-payer system, which would help solve the record-keeping fiasco that doctors and nurses face, according to Berwick. He said they currently face a “complex payment system” that includes a long list of approval steps and conflicting formulas and coding schemes.
Berwick talked about redesigning the care so it is more coordinated. He said that costs go up because people “drop the ball” when it comes to care. Berwick said that people visit hospitals for diabetes or heart failure and then don’t get the same level of care when they go home.
“The whole payment system rewards hospitals to have people in the bed and to have the MRI machine going,” he said. “We need to change the game so that the reward is for keeping people healthy and well.”
Berwick also addressed the state’s troubled health care rollout under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). He said it’s a “terrible mess” and he is “very worried about it.” He said the problem was a “serious failure in management” and is “absolutely not acceptable.”
Berwick also labeled as “management failure” the controversies around the state Department of Children and Families, in which a child the department was supervising went missing and is feared dead, and the state recently handing out of medical marijuana licenses to dispensaries, where there has been reports that some dispensaries lied on their applications.
He said he doesn’t know the details about the medical marijuana rollout, just what he has read in the paper. But, Berwick said, he is “totally supportive” of medical marijuana.
“I have known patients who have had nausea or pain that the only effective treatment was marijuana,” he said. “Why would we deny people who are suffering relief? I do not even know what the argument would be for that.”
Berwick, who said he smoked marijuana in his younger years, is a little more cautious when it comes to legalizing the recreational use of the drug. He said he wants to wait two years to see the data from Colorado and Washington, two states that recently legalized it.
“We’ll see what happens and then we can act with open eyes,” he said.
Berwick also talked about JP, saying he used to come to the neighborhood when his daughter and husband lived here for several years. He said he used to take his grandson to the Curtis Hall Community Center, where he learned to swim.
“I thought it was a fantastic community, vibrant, so textured, very diverse. It is a lovely place,” said Berwick.