By Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn, Politico – July 16, 2020
Congressional Democrats on Thursday condemned Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma after a watchdog report found she mishandled millions of dollars in government contracts, with some lawmakers renewing or issuing new calls for President Donald Trump to replace his controversial Medicare chief.
The Health and Human Services inspector general on Thursday found that a set of contracts Verma approved with outside communications consultants violated federal contracting rules, concluding that the contracts were not appropriately managed and led to “questionable” payouts, like $150,000 for a canceled bus tour.
The inspector general probe was opened after a POLITICO investigation in March 2019 into how Verma used taxpayer funds to contract with GOP-aligned communications consultants who worked to boost her brand. The health department immediately halted the contracts, which the inspector general found had already paid out $5 million.
Verma has disputed the report, calling its findings “disingenuous” and arguing that auditors cherry-picked the examples included in the response.
In a joint release, the chairs of the House Oversight and Energy and Commerce committees and the top Democrats on the Senate HELP and Finance committees said the inspector general’s report showed that Verma spent taxpayer funds inappropriately. They also warned that their own year-long investigation — which drew on “tens of thousands of pages of documents” provided by contractors and the health department — would contain further information about Verma’s spending and decisions.
“Administrator Verma’s blatant refusal to acknowledge the IG’s findings, or take steps to fix the problem, raises concerns about her ability to continue to run the agency during the current health crisis,” Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a joint statement. “We are now completing our investigation and will soon release our findings, which will build upon the Inspector General’s report and provide additional details on Administrator Verma’s inappropriate use of private consultants for her personal benefit.”
Eight other Democrats on Thursday explicitly called on Trump to “remove Administrator Verma from her post without delay,” in a letter led by Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) and joined by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the health department’s finances.
“Verma has grossly misused CMS funding, has reliably prioritized herself over the American people, and it is now clear she lied under oath,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to Trump on Thursday. Under questioning from Kennedy, Verma testified in an October 2019 congressional hearing that the contracts were “consistent with how the agency has used resources in the past, and they’re focused on promoting the work.”
“For someone who claims they want to reduce CMS spending, including reining in fraud and abuse, Verma has spent an exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars for personal use, all to the detriment of CMS beneficiaries and the public,” the Democrats added.
HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo on Thursday dismissed the report, telling POLITICO that the department didn’t plan to take any disciplinary action in response to the inspector general’s findings.
“What we see in that letter is bureaucratic technical recommendations … but there’s no punitive recommendation in this report,” Caputo said. “Training, okay … but as you know there is absolutely nothing punitive recommended.”