Seema Verma, the Trump administration's top Medicaid official, spent over $3 million in taxpayer funds on hand-picked GOP consultants to boost her public image, write speeches and arrange media interviews, a congressional investigation found.
In less than two years, Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), spent nearly $6 million in taxpayer money on highly paid consultants who charged rates of up to $380 an hour, according to the sweeping report from House and Senate Democrats.
Most of the work was organized by Pam Stevens, a GOP media consultant and former Trump administration official who once worked in the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Stevens was paid more than $115,000 for her work over the course of about nine months, the report found.
Within two weeks of being hired, Stevens drafted a plan to pitch Verma for key women’s, leadership and general interest magazines, such Good Housekeeping, Garden & Gun, Glamour, “Mommy Blogs,” Oprah Magazine, the Wall Street Journal's weekend lifestyle section and Woman’s Day.
Stevens was paid $13,000 to nominate Verma for awards, such as Washingtonian’s “Most Powerful Women in Washington” list, and to make sure she appeared on high-profile panels around town.
In another instance, taxpayers were billed almost $3,000 for Stevens to arrange a "Girl's Night" to honor Verma at the home of a prominent Washington journalist. According to documents obtained by the investigators, Stevens called the event a "networking opportunity" for Verma.
Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Caputo in a statement called the report a "political smear."
"This is just another reckless, politically timed, drive-by hit job on a reform-driven Trump Administration official and, by extension, on President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE himself," Caputo said. "Administrator Verma will continue the Administration’s unprecedented success transforming the American healthcare system in a manner that ensures free-market, pro-taxpayer health policy innovations and achievements drive public discussion — not partisan smears."
Verma has previously defended her use of expensive contractors. In October 2019, she told a House panel that the spending was “consistent with how the agency has used resources in the past.”
In November of that same year, she told reporters that consultants were necessary because the agency did not have the necessary communications staff in place to enact her “vision” for the department.
But according to the report, prepared by the staffs of four committees in the House and Senate, Verma and her closest aides sidelined federal employees in favor of the consultants who charged rates that far exceeded federal salaries.
The consultants were part of a "shadow operation within CMS," the report said, and exercised decisionmaking authority over CMS employees and led communications efforts on major CMS policy initiatives and rollouts.
"Administrator Verma misused funds appropriated by Congress and wasted taxpayer dollars intended to support critical federal healthcare programs,” Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWant a clean energy future? Look to the tax code Democrats brace for toughest stretch yet with Biden agenda Lawmakers lay out arguments for boosting clean energy through infrastructure MORE (D-Ore.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayConservation group says it will only endorse Democrats who support .5T spending plan Support the budget resolution to ensure a critical investment in child care Senate Democrats try to defuse GOP budget drama MORE (D-Wash.) said in a joint statement.
"Congress did not intend for taxpayer dollars to be spent on hand-picked communications consultants used to promote Administrator Verma’s public profile and personal brand."
The lawmakers said Verma should personally reimburse the taxpayers for the "inappropriate expenditures."
Tens of thousands of pages of documents from Health and Human Services and private parties were obtained as part of the 17-month-long investigation and included interviews and briefings with employees and executives of two consulting firms used by CMS.
Verma oversees the country’s largest federal health care programs — including Medicare and Medicaid — and is responsible for a $1 trillion annual budget.
"Instead of using these funds to ensure that Americans have access to and are aware of opportunities to enroll in these programs," Verma spent millions of taxpayer dollars on consultants, the Democrats said.