Watchdog to examine Medicare chief's publicity spending

A government watchdog said Friday it will review costly outside contracts to handle public relations for Medicare chief Seema Verma, whose agency oversees health insurance programs covering more than 100 million Americans.

Responding to a request by congressional Democrats, the Health and Human Services inspector general's office said it will examine Verma's public relations contracts at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS.

Democrats called Verma's contracts "a highly questionable use of taxpayer dollars" at the same time her agency had slashed the ad budget for the Affordable Care Act, hindering enrollment.

"Instead of spending resources to improve health care for everyone in the country, Administrator Verma appears to have steered money to political allies in an effort to boost her reputation," said Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Patty Murray, D.-Wash., in a letter requesting the probe.

The lawmakers questioned why Verma would be using outside contractors to write her speeches and handle some media calls when her agency already has an extensive communications staff.

The inspector general's office wrote back it had already begun its review. Inspector General Daniel Levinson said his agency will examine whether Verma complied with federal regulations and ethics requirements.

A CMS spokesman said in statement that its parent agency — Health and Human Services — had asked the inspector general for an audit. CMS said it stopped work on the public relations contracts earlier this week. The spokesman said CMS would work with the inspector general's office.

The outside contracts involve two Republican consultants and a longtime spokesman for Verma. They were first reported by Politico. The news site said the arrangements were subcontracts under a larger government contract with a major public relations firm.

Verma, a former health care consultant who is a protege of Vice President Mike Pence, came to the Trump administration after designing Indiana's Medicaid expansion when Pence was governor of that state.

As head of Medicare and Medicaid, she has pushed for work requirements for low-income "able-bodied" adults on Medicaid. That initiative was recently blocked by a federal judge, who questioned whether it complies with a core Medicaid mission defined by Congress, which is to provide medical assistance to the poor.

Verma has also championed the use of technology to get Medicare beneficiaries more involved in their care. And she has overseen changes to private insurance plans under Medicare Advantage, providing insurers with more flexibility, but also allowing for new benefits for seniors, such as limited in-home help.