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April 2, 2019

Democrats want an investigation into Verma's spending on outside GOP consultants

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    A group of Democrats on Friday called on HHS' Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to launch an investigation into CMS Administrator Seema Verma's use of federal funds to pay for outside Republican communications consultants to help shape her public image, after a Politico investigation revealed CMS has spent millions of dollars on contracts with external consultants.

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    Investigation details

    For the investigation, Politico reporters spoke with experts, CMS officials, and three individuals with direct knowledge of the contracts who described the contracts to Politico. Experts said the contracts are not considered illegal, but they raise ethical questions and concerns about transparency, according to Politico. The three individuals said Verma approved communications subcontracts, despite some opposition from CMS staffers, through a $2.25 million federal contract with the international public relations firm Porter Novelli.

    As part of the subcontracts, Verma had consultants manage her media calls, join her on promotional trips, and write her speeches. According to Politico, the subcontracts were made with:

    • Pam Stevens, a GOP media adviser;
    • Marcus Barlow, a GOP consultant who previously worked with Verma in Indiana; and
    • Nahigian Strategies, a firm led by two brothers—Keith and Ken Nahigian—who consulted on a number of GOP presidential campaigns.

    Two individuals familiar with the contracts said CMS paid Stevens and Barlow between $185 and $200 per hour, which is more than high-level government officials are paid, and one individual familiar with the contract with Nahigian Strategies said the firm received at least $2 million over the past two years for its work with CMS.

    Democrats call for investigation into subcontracts

    Four top Democrats in a letter sent Friday to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson requested that HHS' OIG officially review CMS' contracts to determine whether the agreements followed federal regulations and ethics requirements.

    House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.); House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.); Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.); and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in the letter wrote, "Our committees have longstanding interests in ensuring responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars and that funds are spent on advancing agency initiatives—not for the personal benefit of agency political leaders and their well-connected associates."

    The Democrats on Friday also sent a separate letter to Verma, requesting information on the agency's contract practices and communication with consultants  (Diamond, "Pulse," Politico, 4/1; Morse, Healthcare Finance News, 3/29; Cancryn/Diamond, Politico, 3/29).

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