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Joe Kennedy calls on Medicare chief to resign after reports of jewelry claim, PR contracts

POLITICO logo POLITICO 12/9/2019 By Dan Diamond
Joseph P. Kennedy III wearing a suit and tie: Rep. Joe Kennedy. © Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for RFK Human Rights Rep. Joe Kennedy.

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) Monday became the first lawmaker to call on the official overseeing Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare to resign over POLITICO reports he said reveal “a gross misuse of public funds.”

Kennedy called on Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to step down after POLITICO this weekend reported she had asked taxpayers to cover the cost of $47,000 in stolen jewelry and other goods that were swiped during a work trip. Kennedy had also clashed with Verma during a congressional hearing this fall over her steering of more than $2 million toward public relations contractors, some of whom worked to burnish Verma's personal brand.

“We have now seen a systemic effort by the administrator to use public funds to elevate her own position,” Kennedy said in an interview, adding that CMS has largely ignored his questions about Verma's PR contractors, which were revealed by POLITICO earlier this year. Verma testified in October that the outside contracting work was "consistent" with CMS practice and was intended to promote the agency's agenda.

Kennedy's office said he is the first lawmaker to call on Verma's resignation in light of reports that raise questions about her stewardship of taxpayer funds. It comes as Verma is also facing heightened scrutiny over her increasingly dysfunctional relationship with HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

Responding to Kennedy's remarks, CMS defended Verma's work in a statement to POLITICO. “The administrator’s number one priority is continuing to deliver on the president’s bold health care agenda to ensure Americans have access to high quality, affordable health care," an agency spokesperson said.

CMS this weekend defended Verma’s claim for stolen jewelry, saying that counsel in HHS — which oversees CMS — instructed Verma to file detailed claims for all items that were stolen from her rented SUV while she gave a speech in San Francisco last year. She was reimbursed only $2,852.40 for her claim, according to CMS. The jewelry was not insured.

“The irony is not lost on me that an administrator of health care services for tens of millions of people had decided to forgo insurance and was looking for a government bailout,” Kennedy said. “That’s the entire point of insurance.”

Kennedy, who's bidding to unseat Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a Democratic primary, has also been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration's health care policies. In the same October hearing with Verma, he condemned her signature Medicaid effort requiring some beneficiaries to work to maintain coverage.

Kennedy said he's only calling for Verma's resignation, but he criticized HHS for being “largely silent” about questions regarding Verma’s use of public funds.

“I don’t think that speaks highly of anybody there,” he said.

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