Top health official defends federal contract payments to Trump allies

A top administration health official on Tuesday defended her office’s spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside GOP communications consultants with close ties to President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill Fauci: Nominating conventions may be able to go on as planned Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally MORE.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma said the use of contractors was appropriate, because the agency did not have the necessary communications staff in place to enact her “vision” for the department.

“When I came to CMS, my vision for the comms department was very different than what we had. I wanted to make sure that we were communicating with our patient population … and the provider community,” Verma told reporters. 

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Verma was responding to a report by Politico that found CMS had paid GOP consultants, including at least eight former Trump campaign and transition officials, hundreds of thousands of dollars for work that is normally handled by career civil servants.  

The Health and Human Services Department's inspector general is investigating the $2.25 million contract to determine whether Verma complied with federal ethics rules. Congressional Democrats in the House and Senate are also investigating. 

The agency halted the contract in April after Politico reported that CMS paid millions of federal dollars to Republican media consultants to boost news coverage of the agency's work. Among the duties of those consultants was bolstering Verma’s image, the news outlet reported.

Verma said on Tuesday that the agency regularly uses consultants to help with the rollouts of short-term projects  and specific initiatives. 

She also said she felt CMS needed consultants with specialized expertise, and pointed to efforts to launch podcasts and blogs, give more public speeches, and make policy documents more “readable.”

“When I first started at the agency … we did not have that level of expertise,” Verma said.

Verma added that CMS has been hiring qualified staff, and has been relying less on contractors.

“I think we needed that when we first started, to help us get on a good footing,” Verma said.

Verma said the consultants were used initially to help the agency build a “better communications strategy,” including conducting listening sessions outside of Washington, D.C. 

She added that CMS paid the contractors using standard federal contracting rates.