Medicare chief asked taxpayers to cover stolen jewelry




  • In Politics
  • 2019-12-08 11:30:09Z
  • By Politico
Medicare Chief Probe
Medicare Chief Probe  

A top Trump health appointee sought to have taxpayers reimburse her for the costs of jewelry, clothing and other possessions, including a $5,900 Ivanka Trump-brand pendant, that were stolen while in her luggage during a work-related trip, according to documents obtained by POLITICO.

Seema Verma, who runs the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, filed a $47,000 claim for lost property on Aug. 20, 2018, after her bags were stolen while she was giving a speech in San Francisco the prior month. The property was not insured, Verma wrote in her filing to the Health and Human Services department.

The federal health department ultimately reimbursed Verma $2,852.40 for her claim, a CMS spokesperson said.

Verma's claim included $43,065 for about two dozen pieces of jewelry, based off an appraisal she'd received from a jeweler about three weeks after the theft. Among Verma's stolen jewelry was an Ivanka Trump-brand pendant, made of gold, prasiolite and diamonds, that Verma's jeweler valued at $5,900.

Verma's claim also included about $2,000 to cover the cost of her stolen clothes and another $2,000 to cover the cost of other stolen goods, including a $325 claim for moisturizer and a $349 claim for noise-cancelling headphones.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes CMS, said the department has a longstanding policy of paying for certain goods when they are lost during a work trip, so long as they "are not inherently for other uses," which is why Verma was partially reimbursed.

"When paying for such goods, the department pays a discounted rate based on age for the items that were lost," the spokesperson said. "It's perfectly appropriate that the administrator filed a personal property loss claim for goods stolen while on work travel and this is not an unusual practice for federal employees."

But the department is expressly prohibited from reimbursing staff for lost items like jewelry, the spokesperson said.

The news of the large request for stolen luxury items comes at a time of unusual scrutiny for Verma, who formerly served as a consultant to then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Indiana and has led CMS since March 2017. The $1 trillion health agency administers Medicare, the nation's health insurance program for seniors; Medicaid, the program for low-income Americans; and Obamacare, among other programs.

Verma has been engaged in an acrimonious feud with HHS Secretary Alex Azar that has spilled over into policy matters and prompted separate closed-door meetings for each official with Vice President Pence. Her spending of taxpayer money has also been under scrutiny by the HHS inspector general, after POLITICO reported in March about her extensive use of outside public relations consultants, some of whom worked to burnish Verma's personal brand.

The $2.25 million public relations contract was put on hold pending the probe, and Verma has been under investigation from congressional Democrats.

Verma's luggage was stolen out of her rented Chevrolet Tahoe SUV on July 25, 2018, while she was giving a speech at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, according to statements she gave to the local police and HHS. Verma initially estimated the cost of her lost property as $20,000, according to the police report, before later revising the cost upward when filing her claim to the health department.

POLITICO last month filed a Freedom of Information Act request about Verma's claims for personal damages and separately obtained the documents and confirmed their authenticity with multiple sources.

A CMS spokesperson said that Verma was one of three staffers whose luggage was stolen, and HHS lawyers instructed them to file detailed claims for all missing items, including Verma's jewelry. "At her own expense the administrator travels to Washington, DC, from Indiana each week to work at CMS, which was why she was traveling with her personal collection of jewelry," the spokesperson said. Verma's family lives in Indiana.

Staff were unaware of a federal health employee previously filing a claim as large as $47,000.

Verma was in San Francisco as part of a scheduled three-day trip to Northern California that included a speaking engagement in Napa Valley and a visit to Palo Alto-based Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. The trip was approved by ethics counsel, a CMS spokesperson said.

Verma's San Francisco speech marked a notable point in her tenure: It was the first time the nation's Medicare chief had publicly attacked "Medicare for All" proposals, arguing that Democrats' ideas for single-payer health care would destroy the federal health program for older Americans and lead to "Medicare for None."

Verma won plaudits for the speech inside the White House, POLITICO reported, and she touted it online as part of a months-long campaign against Democrats' proposals. A watchdog group later filed a complaint that Verma's continued attacks on Medicare for All allegedly violated the prohibition on federal officials engaging in political activity.

According to Verma's lost property claim, the stolen items included 11 pairs of earrings, five necklaces and three pendants. Verma appeared to have worn the Ivanka Trump pendant on multiple public occasions, according to a POLITICO review of her appearances, including meetings with the president and at a November 2017 speech when she announced her plan to let states impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients and crack down on other program spending. The government spends approximately $5,700 per Medicaid patient.

"Medicaid is too vital a program to let fraud and inappropriate spending threaten it," Verma said that day.

Clarification: This piece was updated to clarify that HHS does not reimburse employees for jewelry stolen while at work.

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