Seema Verma
Seema Verma

Porter Novelli administers a $2.25M contract for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that has subcontracted with Republican media advisors to buff the image of the agency's administrator Seema Verma, according to a report in Politico.

"Verma, a close ally of Vice President Mike Pence, has become a lightning rod for pushing work requirements in Medicaid and spearheading the Trump administration’s efforts to unilaterally unwind pieces of Obamacare," Politico reported

The subcontracted consultants performed a range of duties usually performed by CMS communications staff, such as handling media calls, joining Verma on promotional trips and writing her speeches.

Some of the work has gone to GOP media advisors Pam Stevens and Marcus Barlow, who Verma had considered hiring as a CMS communications official before the White House blocked his appointment. Politico reported that both Stevens and Barlow are being paid between $185 and $200 per hour.

Verma has also approved a contract with Nahigian Strategies, run by Keith and Ken Nahigian, both of who have extensive GOP connections. The agency’s staff have provided her with assistance on messaging strategy for close to two years. A source told Politico that Nahigian has been paid at least $2 million for its work with CMS.

CMS already has an in-house communications staff of approximately 200 people. Tom Corry, who joined the agency on March 4 from consulting firm Healthcare Data Insights & Analytics, said the outside contracts were due to lack of in-house staff.

Critics of the PR arrangement told Politico there are ethical and contractual problems with steering contracts to political allies, and possibly a violation of the ban on personal services.

"Contracts are supposed to be above reproach, with complete impartiality, and without preferential treatment, and the HHS Inspector General should review this [Porter Novelli] contract and the activities under it to ensure they are proper," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight.

Frank Pallone, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, today called for a Health and Human Services inspector general probe into CMS' PR spending, calling it a “highly questionable use of taxpayer dollars.”