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HHS watchdog to examine Medicare chief’s publicity spending

WASHINGTON (AP) — A government watchdog said Friday it will review costly outside contracts to provide publicity for Medicare chief Seema Verma, whose agency oversees health insurance programs covering more than 100 million Americans.

The Health and Human Services inspector general’s office said it will examine several publicity contracts, following a request by congressional Democrats. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stopped work on the contracts this week while HHS, its parent agency, conducts its own review.

Democrats complained that Verma has steered taxpayer money to political allies at the same time her agency 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 inspector general’s office wrote back it had already begun its own review. Inspector General Daniel Levinson said his agency will examine whether Verma complied with federal regulations and ethics requirements.

There was no immediate response from Verma.

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.

The Democratic 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.

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.

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