Private consultants to the federal official who oversees Medicare billed taxpayers almost $6 million in less than two years to bolster her personal image, including efforts to win awards, place her on lists of powerful women and arrange meetings with influential people, a report by congressional Democrats said Thursday.
Medicare is a U.S. government program that pays most health care costs incurred by senior citizens.
The consultants, many with Republican Party ties, billed taxpayers up to $380 per hour on work largely aimed at polishing the profile of Medicare administrator Seema Verma, the investigators wrote. The contractors were "handpicked" by Verma's aides, the report said, creating "a shadow operation" that sidelined the communications staff of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The consultants' work often had nothing to do with running Medicare, Medicaid and other massive health programs that the agency operates, said the 56-page report, which was backed by more than 1,700 pages of documents. Verma has run the agency since 2017.
"Congress did not intend for Administrator Verma or other senior CMS officials to use taxpayer dollars to stockpile CMS with handpicked consultants or promote Administrator Verma's public profile and personal brand," the report said.
"Given the reckless disregard she has shown for the public's trust, Administrator Verma should reimburse the taxpayers for these inappropriate expenditures," it said.
Agency officials did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls placed to them seeking comment.
'Deep concerns' from Verma
When similar findings were unveiled by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services in July, Verma said she had "deep concerns" with the conclusions and said that report mischaracterized the contractors' jobs.
The report released Thursday was prepared by the Democratic staffs of two Senate and two House committees.
It said that besides burnishing Verma's image, the consultants took the lead fashioning agency communications strategies and had access to sensitive internal information that could affect financial markets.
Marcus Barlow, a consultant who'd previously worked for Verma at a firm in Indiana, billed the Medicare agency for hours comparable to those of full-time workers and had decision-making powers over some federal workers, the report said.
Consultants arranged for private meetings between Verma and hosts of conservative Fox News and editors of Woman's Day and Women's Health magazines, the investigators wrote.
VOA contributed to this report.