Berwick Turns 65: Medicare Chief First To Join Medicare

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.”