Politico has reported that Seema Verma, who oversees Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare, gave millions of taxpayer dollars in contracts to Republican communication consultants.
The communications subcontracts were routed through a bigger federal contract and were approved by CMS Administrator and Trump appointee Seema Verma. The deals, which break from the agency’s precedents, were sometimes objected to by CMS staffers, as they were concerned about her use of federal funds on GOP consultants.
Verma, who is closely allied with Vice President Mike Pence, has continued to push work requirements in Medicaid and undo Obamacare.
Although her use of outside contracts is legal, experts and officials say that it was not transparent and raises questions about ethics.
“Outsourcing communications work to private contractors puts the agency's ability to protect ‘potentially market-moving’ information from premature disclosure at considerable risk,” said Andy Schneider, a Medicaid expert who worked at CMS during the Obama administration.
Current officials didn’t understand why so much of the work at CMS was being outsourced. “The head of Obamacare doesn't need outside consultants to get reporters to talk to her,” said one anonymous CMS official. “The job pitches itself.”
One of Verma’s subcontracts is with Pam Stevens, a GOP media advisor with a speciality in setting up the profiles of Republican women. She allegedly hired Stevens to help bolster her own image. Another subcontract was with Marcus Barlow. Barlow and Verma worked together in Indiana.
Stevens and Barlow are paid from $185 to $200 an hour for their work as contractors. This is a much higher pay rate than most high-level government officials.
Frank Pallone, House Energy and Commerce Chairman, called for a probe into CMS’ use of communications consultants. He calls it a “highly questionable use of taxpayer dollars.”
“I intend to ask the HHS OIG to immediately begin an investigation into how these contracts were approved, whether all regulations and ethical guidelines were followed, and why taxpayers are stuck paying for these unnecessary services,” he said in a statement.
It is not required for federal agencies to proactively disclose subcontract arrangements. This gray area gives agencies leeway to bring on individuals or firms under vague public contracts. Yet, some CMS staff have voiced concerns about directing taxpayer dollars top GOP consultants. Oversight groups say that the behavior seems to cross ethical lines.
"There are a host of ethical and contractual problems with appointees steering contracts to political allies and subcontractors, and possibly a violation of the ban on personal services contracts if the work is being performed at the direction of the appointee,” Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight said. “Contracts are supposed to be above reproach, with complete impartiality, and without preferential treatment, and the HHS Inspector General should review this [Porter Novelli] contract and the activities under it to ensure they are proper."
In the two years she has led CMS, Verma has continuously criticized Obamacare and mocked ideas like “Medicare for All.”
The current use of communications contractors by CMS has gone far beyond the norm, which is using consultants for agency priorities.