NRI Pulse Staff Report
Atlanta, GA, November 12, 2019: Seema Verma, the Indian-American administrator of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), is in the center of a growing federal health contract controversy.
Several Trump allies were among at least 40 outside public relations consultants who worked on a $2.25 million contract directed by Verma, says an investigative report by Politico.
The allies included at least eight former White House, presidential transition and campaign officials.
Verma’s job as head of CMS extends beyond Medicare for senior citizens and Medicaid for the poor – to crafting and implementing Republican healthcare reforms.
“The contractors were hired to burnish Verma’s personal brand and provide “strategic communications” support. They charged up to $380 per hour for work traditionally handled by dozens of career civil servants in CMS’s communications department,” according to Politico.
The contractors allegedly charged hefty fees with little accountability. In the four-month period from September 2018 to January 2019, the total amount billed was at least $744,000. The Department of Health and Human Services cut short the one-year contract in April after a Politico expose.
However, CMS agreed to allow at least four consultants, including Verma’s long time ally Marcus Barlow, to bill up to $204,000 over the length of the contract.
“Those are far higher rates than for the department’s regular communications staff and even the agency’s top political appointees. Senior career officials in the CMS communications department were paid about $140,000 last year. HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s annual salary is $203,500, a spokesperson told Politico.
CMS, in a statement to Politico, defended its use of outside contractors, contending that it did not have the in-house staff needed to carry out Verma’s ambitious messaging campaign for the agency.
A CMS spokesperson told Politico that when Verma started in 2017, she wanted to “ensure that the agency was communicating with the American people about CMS programs and not just relying on inside-the-beltway health press”.
“At that point, CMS did not have the specialized expertise or bandwidth needed to execute on a strategic communications plan for the agency’s work in ensuring all Americans have access to affordable, high quality health care.”
But CMS’s heavy dependence on contractors for nearly two years alarmed current and former CMS officials and government ethics experts, says Politico. By early 2019, CMS also had hired multiple political appointees to help manage Verma’s communications.
Verma told lawmakers at a recent Congressional hearing, “All the contracts we have at CMS are based on promoting the work of CMS.”
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) has questioned Verma’s “use of contracted political operatives for her own benefit on the taxpayers’ dime.”
Read full Politico report here: