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Health leader Donald Berwick starts bid for governor

Served Obama administration

Dr. Donald M.  Berwick said he has heard a desire for “government they can trust” around the state.

Dr. Donald M. Berwick said he has heard a desire for “government they can trust” around the state.

Dr. Donald M. Berwick, a former Obama administration official, quietly launched his campaign for governor Monday, more than 16 months before voters hit the polls to elect a successor to Governor Deval Patrick.

An expert on health care cost and quality but a political novice, Berwick kicked off his maiden run for elective office, becoming the first big-name Democrat to enter what is expected to be a robustly contested race for the Corner Office.

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Berwick, a 66-year-old Newton pediatrician, spent almost a year and a half running the country’s massive Medicaid and Medicare programs, while helping to implement the national health care law. He is lauded by fellow health care experts for his intelligence and effectiveness on national health policy.

He chose, however, to launch his campaign in an unusual fashion: in an e-mailed press release, sent while he was out of state, at a time public attention is focused on the Senate special election eight days away.

In a phone interview Monday, Berwick framed himself as progressive on major issues and said it was crucial that Massachusetts continue to focus on health care reform and the well-being of children, topics he has focused on during his career.

Butat times he avoided specifics, preferring to paint the themes of his candidacy in broad strokes.

He said people he has spoken with in the state want “government to perform better. They want more responsiveness, and that’s what I want to work on.”

“It’s about the future,” Berwick said. “I have two grandchildren. I want to hand them a planet and community that is really thriving.”

Berwick, who holds three degrees from Harvard, repeatedly emphasized his experience in helping health organizations deliver better care to consumers, an asset he said he would bring to being the state’s chief executive. In the late 1980s, Berwick was a founder of the influential Institute for Healthcare Improvement, an organization based on reducing medical errors and waste.

Another Democratic physician, Dr. Joseph Avellone, has announced a bid for governor in 2014. state Treasurer Steven Grossman and Representative Michael E. Capuano, both Democrats, have said they are pondering bids as well. State Senator Dan Wolf, a Democrat, is also considered a potential contender.

On the Republican side, Charles D. Baker, the GOP nominee who lost to Patrick in 2010, has said he is considering another run. Evan Falchuk, running as the United Independent Party candidate, has also officially entered the race.

Berwick, a Connecticut native who moved to Massachusetts when he was 18, was appointed by Obama in July 2010 as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

There, Berwick explained, he pushed for health care that was more patient-centered, advocating programs that could help prevent medical issues, and reducing the cost of health care by improving it.

Berwick left his post after 17 months because Republican senators had vowed to block his confirmation. Republicans slammed him for his comments supporting Britain’s national health plan. They accused him of being a proponent of health care rationing after he said it made sense to compare the effectiveness of various treatments to decide which are worth funding.

Berwick said Republicans had taken his comments out of context. He called the accusation that he is interested in rationing health care “hogwash.”

Fellow experts in the health care field, however, praised Berwick’s savvy.

“He’s got a brilliant mind,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a health care advocacy group. “He’s a Renaissance person, a deep thinker who’s not paralyzed by thought,” said Pollack, who met Berwick in 1997 when President Clinton appointed them to a commission to develop a patients’ bill of rights.

“He certainly has a good understanding of the synthesis between good policy and practical politics. He would make a remarkable governor,” he added.

But Bay State political analysts questioned the timing of his campaign rollout, when Berwick was not even in Massachusetts. In the interview with the Globe, he said he was speaking from a Washington-area airport before boarding a flight to Florida.

“You get one chance to make a good first impression in a campaign,” said Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “This isn’t it.”

At the end of May, Berwick had just more than $175,000 in his campaign account, according to filings with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Berwick began actively mulling a campaign a few months ago and has been traveling around the state speaking to residents. He said he has heard a desire for “government they can trust” and for leaders to pursue a “progressive agenda.”

In the interview, Berwick declined to criticize anything about Patrick’s tenure as governor, saying he was focused on the future, not the past. “I think he’s done, in general, a very good job,” Berwick said.

He declined to share his thoughts on the specifics of the budget debate roiling Beacon Hill. And while he said education policy would be a major focus of his campaign, he would not say whether he supported lifting the cap on funding for charter schools in the state.

Berwick also expressed significant concern about casino gambling’s impending arrival in the state. “I am worried about the potential effect of casinos on communities,” he said, adding that the state should move with robust oversight as casinos are built.

Environmental issues, too, would be a focus of his election effort, Berwick said. He favors the Cape Wind project, explaining that it is important to develop offshore wind resources to help reduce dependence on carbon-producing energy sources.

Tracy Jan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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