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Republican Contractors Got HHS Funds To Improve Verma’s ‘Brand’

Reprinted with permission from DailyKos.

It’s grift all the way down in the Trump administration, and federal health dollars are no exception. Funds that should be going to things like promoting the Affordable Care Act open enrollment (just 33 days left!) have been funneled to former Trump and Pence campaign and transition officials, according to documents obtained by Politico.

At least eight Trumpsters were among the 40-some consultants hired for one purpose—to make Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma look good, to “burnish Verma’s personal brand.” The CMS have career civil servants who have traditionally handled the agency’s communications needs, but Verma has instead hired these contractors—Trump grifters—at as much as $380 an hour to make her look good. Note that Verma’s shtick while heading up CMS has been fighting “waste, fraud, and abuse” in programs such as Medicaid and helping Trump sabotage Obamacare. She’s been the lead architect in creating the onerous work requirements under Medicaid, crafting humiliating hoops enrollees have to jump through to get health care—hoops that courts have found illegal under existing law.

In less than five months in the fall of 2018, Politico discovered, CMS paid out at least $744,000 in contractor payments. The Department of Health and Human Services, CMS’ parent, finally halted the contracts in April after a Politico report on Verma’s use of PR consultants to promote herself. Among them was Marcus Barlow, who worked as her spokesman when she was in Indiana acting as a consultant to then-Gov. Mike Pence. Barlow received a contract for as much as $425,000 for a year’s worth of work. The salary for a career CMS communications official is about $140,000. The secretary of HHS, Alex Azar, receives an annual salary of $203,500.

Most of the consultants were subcontractors to Nahigian Strategies, a public relations firm run by two brothers. Ken Nahigian led the Trump transition in 2017, and Keith Nahigian is a regular on Republican presidential campaigns. They arranged contracts for Trump campaign and White House official Brad Rateike, who was paid $1,150 for three and a half hours of work. Republican fundraiser Maggie Mulvaney spent part of October 2018 “consulting” for $2,500. Trump campaign staffer Zachary Lamb billed $7,388.52 in the same month. Taylor Mason, a Trump inaugural staffer, double-dipped as an employee of Nahigian Strategies under a contract that paid at least $54,900 in a four-month stint. The Nahigians themselves “charged $275,565 for a range of strategic communications duties, and the brothers themselves billed roughly $56,970 for their personal services at a $379.80 hourly rate.

IMAGE: Center for Medicare Services administrator Seema Verma.

Beset By Scandal, Trump’s Medicare Czar Should Resign Now

From Tom Price’s $1 million in private plane travel to Scott Pruitt’s attempt to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, officials in the Trump administration appear to be having a competition with each other to see who can be the most nakedly corrupt. Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), is a top contender. Price and Pruitt are two of the many Trump officials who have already resigned in disgrace. It’s past time for Verma to do the same.

Last week, the depths of Verma’s corruption were exposed when an investigative report revealed that she spent millions of taxpayer dollars on hiring Republican communications consultants to “bolster her public profile.” Verma’s agency already has around 24 in-house communications staff, but apparently that wasn’t enough for her. She saw the opportunity to funnel huge sums of money to her political buddies and eagerly took it.

Verma does have good reason to be concerned about her public image. Her tenure running Medicare and Medicaid has been marked by attacks on both programs and their beneficiaries. Since these programs are extremely popular, attacking them is a great way to get a terrible reputation.

Her assault on Medicaid has been relentless. Before joining the Trump administration, Verma was the head of SVC Inc., a consulting firm that worked on making state Medicaid programs as cruel and stingy as possible.

When Mike Pence was governor of Indiana, he paid her firm $3.5 million of taxpayer money to design a Medicaid program that forced beneficiaries to pay premiums or go without needed care—defeating the entire purpose of Medicaid, which is specifically intended for people who can’t afford health care. Simultaneously, Verma’s firm was paid an additional $1.2 million by the Hewlett-Packard Corporation, which had contracts to administer the Medicaid program she designed. Her work in Indiana, foreshadowing her tenure at CMS, was the height of both cruelty and corruption.

Once Trump put Verma in charge of CMS, she wasted no time in finding another way to attack Medicaid beneficiaries. Under her leadership, CMS has approved waivers from six Republican states allowing them to add so-called work requirements to Medicaid. In Arkansas alone, nearly 50,000 Americans could lose their health care due to these bureaucratic hurdles. Experts agree that this is a cruel and terrible policy, for reasons that should be obvious: It’s much more difficult to look for work when you are sick and going without treatment.

Verma’s attacks on Medicare are more subtle but no less dangerous. Under her leadership, CMS has been exhibiting blatant favoritism to Medicare Advantage plans, which are run by for-profit insurance corporations, over traditional Medicare. This is very dangerous for seniors because unlike traditional Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans restrict patients to a limited number of doctors and frequently and improperly deny people the care that they need. These plans lure seniors in with perks like gym memberships. It’s only when people become sick that the hidden downsides become evident.

Verma’s CMS has issued several regulations to push people toward Medicare Advantage, such as allowing these plans to cover services traditional Medicare is forbidden from covering. Further, the agency has been essentially acting as a marketing arm of Medicare Advantage plans, sending emails to Medicare beneficiaries pushing the plans with subject lines like “Get more benefits for your money.” Verma frequently cheerleads for Medicare Advantage in her public remarkstweets, and op-eds.

The reason she loves Medicare Advantage so much could be that corruption loves company as much as misery. The corporate insurers that make up Medicare Advantage also like to just bilk the taxpayers, according to a recent whistleblower lawsuit exposing that the “amounts in question industrywide are mind-boggling: Some analysts estimate improper Medicare Advantage payments at $10 billion a year or more.”

Seema Verma’s attacks on Medicare and Medicaid, along with her close involvement in the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken and destroy the Affordable Care Act, have hurt Verma’s public image. Paying $3.5 million in taxpayer money to her Republican consultant friends has done nothing to help. If Verma wants to do something that’s actually popular with the public, the answer is simple: Resign.

Alex Lawson is the executive director of Social Security Works, a non-profit advocacy group that supports expanding benefits to address America’s growing retirement security crisis. Lawson has appeared on numerous TV and radio outlets and is a frequent guest host of The Thom Hartmann Program, one of the top progressive radio shows in the country.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Trump’s Medicare Overseer Spent Millions On Her ‘Personal Brand’

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Seema Verma, the official Trump installed to oversee Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, has been spending millions of tax dollars on Republican public relations and media consultants to make her look good.

Verma is the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services agency (CMS), and Politico reports that in that role she has squandered over $3.25 million in taxpayer funds on the vanity project.

“The head of Obamacare doesn’t need outside consultants to get reporters to talk to her,” a CMS official told the outlet, highlighting the absurdity of Verma’s actions. Nonetheless, Verma has handed out money to a squadron of Republican consultants.

“Some career CMS staff have voiced their concerns to political appointees within the agency about routing taxpayer dollars to GOP consultants and helping a federal official like Verma improve her personal brand,” Politico reported.

The spending is even more suspect since the CMS agency already has its own public relations department, which Politico notes employs two dozen people who handle press issues already.

One of the contracts Verma gave out went to Pam Stevens, who specializes in getting media outlets to do profiles of Republican women like Verma. She is being paid between $185 to $200 per hour for this work.

Just this month, Verma appeared in a profile in AARP’s magazine and apparently also posed for a photo shoot for the publication.

Verma paid out at least $2 million to Nahigan Strategies, a firm with principals that have done public relations work for multiple Republican presidential campaigns. Politico reports that they have “supported and advised Verma on messaging strategy for nearly two years.”

Before Trump, the CMS agency usually used its public relations funds to raise public awareness for Medicare enrollment and sign-ups for Obamacare. Trump has been trying to sabotage the health care system by cutting funds for those campaigns, while Verma instead spent the money to raise her own profile instead.

Rather than helping Americans to get health care that they need, Verma spent the money to have consultants that handled her media calls, traveled with her on promotional trips and wrote her speeches.

Verma’s consultants even tried to ban a reporter from being a part of the agency’s telephone news conferences because he wouldn’t delete reporting that exposed  incompetence on her watch.

“Administrator Verma seems to think she can bury inconvenient facts by threatening reporters with blacklisting,” said Ivan Oransky, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists

Despite all the exorbitant spending, transferring tax dollars to Republican allies, Verma has been having a tough time at the job.

She has spearheaded the effort to take away Medicaid benefits from people by imposing excessive work requirements, adding a layer of cruelty to those already in desperate financial situations.

A federal judge recently ruled against the Trump administration as it worked in concert with Republicans in Kentucky to impose such rules.

Republicans have renewed their attacks on the American health care system. Trump recently bragged that he would be working to “terminate” Obamacare for at least 20 million people.

Verma is a creature of the “swamp” that Trump has created in his administration, representing the practice of pulling up Republican insiders and related hangers-on to the public trough and giving them free rein to gorge themselves on the public’s money.

Instead of helping Americans, they are trying to hurt the most vulnerable and make themselves look good while doing so. But they are so sloppy at it that they keep getting caught.

Published with permission of The American Independent.

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A Goldman Sachs Banker and A Billionaire Tapped For Economic Posts

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump chose a former Goldman Sachs banker and a billionaire investor on Tuesday to steer economic policy in his administration and a fierce Obamacare critic to dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare program.

Republican Trump is expected to name Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner and Hollywood financier, as his nominee for Treasury secretary, a source said, putting a Wall Street veteran in the top U.S. economic Cabinet post.

Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs before leaving in 2002 to launch a hedge fund, served as Trump’s campaign finance chairman.

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, known for his investments in distressed industries, is expected to be named commerce secretary, a source said.

The announcements could come as early as Wednesday.

The flurry of picks showed Trump, a real estate tycoon with no governing experience, rewarding loyalists and established Washington veterans as he rounds out his circle of top advisers.

Republican U.S. Representative Tom Price, an orthopedic surgeon from Georgia, will be Trump’s health and human services secretary. Seema Verma, the founder of a health policy consulting company, will lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is part of Health and Human Services and oversees government health programs for the poor and the elderly and insurance standards.

Trump also announced his choice of Elaine Chao, labor secretary under President George W. Bush, to serve as secretary of transportation, saying in a statement that her expertise would be an asset “in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure.”

While Trump made decisions on his economic team, he continued to mull over who should serve as his top diplomat.

He dined with former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a one-time critic and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, at a French restaurant in New York on Tuesday night.

Romney sharply criticized Trump during the presidential campaign but he offered praise after their dinner.

“He continues with a message of inclusion, of bringing people together,” Romney told reporters. He said Trump’s Cabinet choices so far and speech on Election Night were encouraging.

DISMANTLING OBAMACARE

Trump cast Price and Verma as a “dream team” to help him once he takes office on Jan. 20 with his campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare, the health law formally known as the Affordable Care Act. It has been a target of Republican attacks since its enactment in 2010.

Price has characterized Obamacare as “doing real harm to American families” and has co-sponsored legislation to replace it.

Verma helped Pence, the Indiana governor, add conservative pieces to Medicaid coverage for the state’s poor by requiring beneficiaries to make contributions to health savings accounts. She also worked on Medicaid programs in Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, was among the defenders of Obamacare who criticized Price’s selection. “Nominating Congressman Price to be the HHS secretary is akin to asking the fox to guard the hen house,” Schumer said.

The 2010 healthcare overhaul, aimed at expanding insurance coverage to millions more Americans, triggered a long, bitter fight between the White House and congressional Republicans, who said it created unwarranted government intervention in personal healthcare and private industry.

Trump has said he will replace Obamacare with a plan to give states more control over Medicaid and allow insurers to sell plans nationally.

Price and Verma will both need Senate confirmation. Congressional approval will be needed to repeal and change the health law.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended Obamacare on Tuesday, saying it had expanded coverage to millions of Americans, boosted consumer protections and shored up the finances of the Medicare program for the elderly.

“We’ll see if Trump care measures up,” he said.

Trump said after meeting Obama following his Nov. 8 election victory that he would consider keeping the provisions of the healthcare law that let parents keep adult children up to age 26 on their insurance policies and that bar insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Price, an early Trump supporter in the U.S. House of Representatives who leads the budget committee, has proposed a plan that would create age-based tax credits for people who buy insurance coverage on their own.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Tuesday the eventual congressional plan to replace Obamacare would likely have much in common with Price’s ideas.

Price’s plan would also roll back the 2010 law’s expansion of Medicaid for low-income people, a change that helped Obamacare cut the number of uninsured Americans to 29 million in 2015 from 49 million in 2010.

Trump vowed on the campaign trail to “save” Medicare, but Democrats said Price’s plans could amount to privatizing the government program for the elderly. Price has endorsed converting Medicare from a program that covers set benefits to a voucher-style program to help people buy coverage.

“We say to Republicans who want to privatize Medicare: Go try it. Make our day,” Schumer said on Tuesday, saying the change would be unpopular with the public.

Democrats also criticized the pick because Price has supported barring federal funds for Planned Parenthood, which provides some abortions in addition to birth control, health exams and other services.

Trump has met about 70 people as he looks to shape his White House and Cabinet team. Chao, his pick for transportation secretary, was the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position, as labor secretary. She is married to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump saw retired General David Petraeus, a potential candidate for the State Department or the Pentagon, on Monday. On Tuesday, he met Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Corker and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as well as Romney, are in the running for secretary of state.

Trump is set to launch a “thank you tour” of states he won in the election, starting with a rally on Thursday in Cincinnati, aides said.

(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley, David Shepardson, Susan Cornwell and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Jilian Mincer in New York; Writing by Emily Stephenson and Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney, Leslie Adler and Paul Tait)

IMAGE: Steven Mnuchin, the Trump campaign’s finance director, arrives at U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s Trump Tower in New York, U.S., November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar